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Rachel Cohen

Sophie Calle and Rembrandt at the Gardner

Frederick Project: Missing

Yesterday I wrote about a Rembrandt self-portrait that is still to be seen at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Today, thinking of recent news of a painting stolen from a coronavirus closed museum, I want to write about a Rembrandt self-portrait that isn't still to be seen at the Gardner.

Seven years ago, there was a Sophie Calle installation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It was a reconfiguration of an earlier project, done in 1990, immediately after the theft of thirteen important works from the Gardner’s collection.

In 1990, Calle had been in Boston quite a bit, and had been spending time with Vermeer’s The Concert. After it, and the other works were stolen from the Gardner, she did a project interviewing different people about the missing paintings. Their memories of them were very beautiful. She called it Last Seen...

Some of this material was then included in the later installation, from 2013, which was when I encountered it. Perhaps appropriately, I cannot find my photographs of the texts, which were mounted large on the walls, next to large color photographs of the empty places. The texts and photographs were the works of the exhibition. The exhibition also included a later set of Calle photographs and interviews, called What Do You See?, which showed the backs of individuals who were looking at the recently rehung frames for the missing works.

What I remember best from the Calle show came from an interview, from 1990, with a guard from the museum, who said that she, I’m pretty sure it was a woman, used to look for the little drawing of the Rembrandt self-portrait each day. It was mounted low down, and to one side, you sort of had to know where it was to see it. And she had some very nice phrase for the sense of a greeting each day.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, etching, 1 ¾ x 2 inches, 1633. Last seen at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

Most of the painting that has been made in the last 64,000 years has gone missing. Some of it turns up again. But paintings are aware of their odd combination of permanence and ephemerality, and this is part of what makes them precious, and makes each one seem like a portal into the realm of painting itself, where perhaps all those missing paintings have gone.

It is unlikely that the guard will ever see her little etching again. Still, because of the work of Sophie Calle, I know that one of the people Rembrandt made that etching for did get to live with it for years.

A further note. April 11, 2020. This morning I found one image, half of the set of quotations Sophie Calle framed from interviews she did about one of the stolen paintings, a Manet.