wishing for a vermeer

While there are many things swimming around in my head (and happening in my life), I cannot help but write more about the topic I touched on last week. I mentioned going to the Frick Museum. Well.. I wasn’t completely disclosing about why- except of course that art is very cool and art in a fancy home is ridiculously cool. I went because one of my dear companions has recently become obsessed with art heists and he’s taken me with him down the rabbit hole. I blame it on this book (which I am about halfway through with right now). The Frick contains three paintings by Johannes Vermeer. His representation of light on canvas is truly phenomenal, and he seems to catch intimate moments in time that he feels no need to explain. Since he died in his 40s, there are not many of his paintings hanging around. And one of the most beautiful ones, The Concert, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Garden Museum in Boston twenty years ago.

For some reason, I am so wrecked by the idea of stolen art. I think the worst thing (so far) is that they cut the painting out of their frames. I imagine the police and the curator picking up scraps of three Rembrandts, five Degas drawings, a Manet and the previously mentioned Vermeer from amidst shards of glass on the floor. And the really crazy thing, in know crazy upon crazy, is that part of the arrangement specified by Isabella Gardner in her will was that the museum would always remain as she left it. Nothing could be changed. So the frames went back up on the walls completely empty. This breaks my heart. Not that it wouldn’t be sad to see the empty space where a painting lived before it was stolen but I imagine seeing its empty frame is absolutely crushing. See how easy it is to become completely consumed with the subject matter?

I already have a few books lined up after this one, all in the same vein. What is so interesting and heart-breaking about these heists is not simply the theft but the history and irreplaceable value (in every sense of the word) that these works possess. It’s not as though Rembrandt can whip us up another rare seascape. That’s it. That’s all.

I think it’s the gone part that truly bothers me. The idea that these masterpieces are hidden somewhere and there’s a chance that no one will every see them again. Stand close enough (without inciting the guard’s wrath) to see the brush strokes. With so many amazing works of art, we are able to witness them in their real form. For example, the writing of Shakespeare is preserved in tact. I know, we do not get to see it the way it was done but I think it holds up pretty well and the work lives on. We’re not in danger of losing Hamlet, never to see or read or hear it ever again. Art is different, you can argue that these paintings are on postcards and mugs and magnets… but it’s not the same. And selfishly, I want to see The Concert (maybe more so since I cannot right now, don’t get be started on dreaming of the impossible).

Oh, one more thing about the Gardner Museum. There was a provision in Isabella’s will (I think it was her will) stipulating that the museum must stay in tact, as it was when she died. Nothing can be changed or the museum is returned to the trust, made private again or something. So after the broken glass and painting fragments were cleaned up off the floor, the empty frames were returned to their places on the walls. I imagine that this is really haunting and heart-achingly sad. I assume that when a piece is stolen (there are so many more than I ever knew, I often wish I hadn’t inadvertently started this course of knowledge), the museum simply rearranges the exhibit, the room, the gallery to remove any overly obvious loss. This cannot happen at the Gardner, its galleries are a living reminder of the heist. I found the FBI list of all the items stolen that night (well, in the wee hours of the morning on March 18, 1990- my memory strikes again).

He who can be blamed for my obsession and I are planning a trip to Boston to visit the museum. I feel as though I must see it, or not see it, for myself. I have to pay my respects. I’ll tell you this- the two smaller Vermeers at the Frick here in NYC- well I am very concerned for their safety. Oh wait, they have these individual small, loud motion detectors in front of them. I remember seeing them. And maybe now they will also have a redhead standing watch, you never know. If you come visit, please say hello. And if I’m not standing guard in that hallway, I’m probably in the courtyard doing some writing… there’s a new play to bring to life. And now it might have to involve some art. Okay two more before I go, one of the Degas and the Manet:

I think that paintings live in that place between emotion and speech, that place where we feel so deeply but find ourselves at a loss when attempting to articulate those feelings. I love that place and hope these paintings are somewhere safe at least. I have to believe that they are safe. And maybe someday they will be returned. And I will be there to see them when they get home.

If you have any art stories or heist stories, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

Until next Thursday,


Things I’m digging this week: Art Theft Investigators, they are so cool (see I’m obsessed!)

Dream Role: Why break with the theme… I’ll say Catharina Bolnes (Vermeer’s wife- they think her image was inspiration in a few paintings, including this one)

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