Isabella Stewart Gardener

Sharon Lorenzo’s tenth painting profile.

On St. Patrick’s Day eve, in 1990, a group of thugs dressed in police department uniforms spent 81 minutes wandering the corridors of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts stealing a random variety of objects from the collection with no apparent methodology. All these years later these works are still missing including the most valuable of the group, The Concert by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). He painted 34 known works in his lifetime in the city of Delft in the Netherlands. Estimates post the value of the stolen works at over $500 million dollars. FBI agents are still working with Scotland Yard and European Interpol officers to track down all leads related to their recovery. The Board of Directors of the museum has recently increased the reward for information on this heist to $10 million dollars.

The Concert is a small work measuring 28.5 inches by 25.5 inches, and it was completed in 1664. Isabella Gardner bought it in an auction in Paris in 1892 for $5000, and today its worth is estimated at $200 million dollars.. The composition includes two women and a gentleman, one at the harpsichord, another on the lute and a third singing. Behind the piano are a pastoral landscape and a painting by a peer of Vermeer, Dirck van Baburen, which hangs in the neighboring Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  It is known as The Procuress. In this work we can see a customer with a prostitute and the procuress with her hand open for her payment for this arranged liaison. This subject matter seems at odds with the musical scene, perhaps alluding to some romantic relationship which might evolve amongst those depicted.

The Concert, Johannes Vermeer, 1664

Fondly known to her kin and friends as “Mrs. Jack,” Isabella Stewart Gardner was a woman of courage and conviction way beyond her peers. Born in 1840 in New York City to David and Adelia Stewart, who were of English and Scottish descent, Isabella married wealthy industrialist, Jack Gardner, and moved to Boston to reside in an expansive home at 152 Beacon Street. Sadly her first and only child died at the age of two from pneumonia. To help overcome their grief, Isabella and Jack headed to Europe and began a spending spree formulating a collection of old master paintings, sculpture and relics of antiquity with the help of dealers like the infamous Bernard Berenson. Isabella’s favorite stop was the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, and here John Singer Sargent painted her portrait in 1888. While the work is modest and demur, another of Sargent’s works purchased for her collection reflects her gypsy-like demeanor, El Jaleo from 1882. It resides in the Spanish courtyard of the Museum where you can almost imagine a flamenco band at work.

Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, John Singer Sargent, 1888

El Jaleo, John Singer Sargent, 1882

El Jaleo in the Spanish Corridor, Gardner Museum

After Jack Gardner’s untimely death in 1898, Isabella decided to begin the process of building her own museum to house their 2,500 works. Isabella bought land near Fenway Court and hired Willard Sears to design a European style palazzo as her museum. It was completed in 1903. With her one million dollar endowment to commence the effort, the museum has thrived since her death in 1924 and has a glamorous group of trustees and patrons. In 2012 a new wing was added by Renzo Piano. The museum has also expanded its education and out-reach programs to the many schools and universities nearby. By far the most prestigious work in the collection was commissioned by King Philip II of Spain from the Italian artist, Titian, known as The Rape of Europa, painted in 1560-1562. It passed by gift to the Duke of Orleans who sold it to Berenson in 1896 and hence to Isabella. Measuring 70 x 81 inches, it represents the myth of the god Zeus carrying off Europa to Crete, having transformed himself into a bull. Europa would be his Queen and the mother of his three children. Because of its enormous size and weight, it escaped the tragic theft in March of 1990.

Rape of Europa, Titian, 1560-1562

In this day and age of our raging art market, the example of Isabella Stewart Gardner and her museum leave a sterling legacy of good taste and vision for other art lovers to emulate. Her acquisitive energy is apparent to all who visit this lovely relaxing place where the Gardner mission lives on in this stellar collection which awaits the return of the thirteen missing works of art.