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.

Rembrandt in Gray at the Gardner

Frederick Project: Stolen

Rembrandt in Gray at the Gardner

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-Portrait, Age 23, 1629. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photos Rachel Cohen.

I wish I could say that I knew this painting well, but the truth is that I walked by it a few times when we lived in Boston. I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum fairly often, because I was writing a book about Bernard Berenson, who was one of her most important advisors in building the collection. But Berenson was focused on Italian paintings, and when I went to the museum I spent a lot of my time in the Italian rooms. On most visits, I never even went around to the side of the museum that has this dark room of Flemish and Netherlandish painting, and where this Rembrandt self-portrait hangs.

The Dutch paintings room at the Gardner is the one from which several important works were stolen in 1990. I also sometimes avoided it because I found it upsetting to see the empty places on the walls where the missing paintings (Vermeer’s The Concert, the two large Rembrandt paintings, the tiny Rembrandt self-portrait etching) should have been.

I won't show that injured wall. This is the wall with the as-of-today present Rembrandt Self-Portrait in the photo that the Gardner Museum thoughtfully offers on its website.

My pictures are dated June 10 of 2016, so I must have gone just a few days before we left Boston to move to Chicago. This was a farewell visit. Rembrandt self-portraits have been a touchstone for me, as for so many writers, for a long time. I first remember looking at them carefully when I was seventeen, so about thirty years.

I guess I thought I might at some point want to write about this painting, because I took quite a few pictures and they came out well. I think you can get a sense of the incredible variety of textures that you feel looking at the painting – the velvet hat, beads, the hair, skin, moustache, cloth.

This morning my eye was caught by the gray.

Gray seemed to be connected both to the gray skies we still have, last of March, and to the still life I looked at yesterday by Manet (a Manet was also stolen from the Gardner, which I had forgotten until I looked it up just now.)

It was only when I began to picture myself walking into the room that I thought about the stolen works. And remembered a headline from yesterday, that a Van Gogh had been stolen from a museum in the Netherlands shuttered by the coronavirus.

Wherever there is money, misfortune, human passion, beauty, violence, trust and mistrust, there will be paintings. When you see a painting in a museum, you do not know if you will see it again, if it will be seen by anyone again.

This is the Van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, belonging to the Groninger Museum, but on loan to the Singer Laren museum. It was stolen early in the morning of March 30th, which was the painter’s birthday. The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring was painted in 1884. Van Gogh’s father was a pastor, and this was the garden of his parents’ home, where he stayed with them between 1883 and 1885. It looks to me, in reproduction, an intimate and significant painting, connecting back to Corot and forward to Vuillard. Van Gogh died in 1890 and was, in the mid-1880s, at the height of his powers. It would be nice to see this painting right about now, at the cusp of spring.

This is a little area of the Rembrandt that struck me as especially beautiful a few days before we left Boston.