(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March, 1990, in response to the theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Vermeer’s painting, The Concert, on March 18, 1990.)
I started going to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when I was in college, because it was a place to see flowers in winter. I soon discovered The Concert, painted in 1664 by Jan Vermeer. Over the years, I kept going back, to gaze at its small glazed surface, as cool and luminous as moonlight reflected in a lily pond. Each time I looked at it, I saw something new.
Sometimes I was fascinated by the people in the picture – the two women playing music, and the man watching. The man’s back is turned so you cannot see his face, but you feel his dark, brooding presence, like a figure in a dream you recognize but can’t quite place. Sometimes I admired its purely abstract qualities – the geometrical arrangement of black and white squares with a few patches of pure color, like the skeleton of a Mondrian.
Sometimes its clarity made me see something in my own life more clearly, and sometimes it made me cry. Standing in front of the Vermeer, I felt pleasure and pain. In its stillness and silence and silvery light, I learned to measure the true value of art.
I’ve loved this painting all these years, and watched it grow richer and deeper over time. I thought it would always be there for me, and continue to grow. That’s why its loss is so hard to bear. “The Concert” always seemed to promise that perfect beauty, like true love, would last forever. As John Keats wrote in Endymion,
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever;
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Fade into nothingness;”
“The Concert” – cool, silent, mysterious — was a place where I could always find serenity and shelter from life’s sounds and fury, loneliness and pain. Now it’s lost. I don’t know if I’ll ever see that pearly light again, or feel that endless stillness, or hear the sweet cadences of that silent music. The poster only reminds me of all that we’ve lost.
Now it’s gone. I feel this loss as a death. I try to remember every line, every shadow, every gleam of light. I trace the painting’s contours, again and again. I gaze on its image in my mind, like a lost beloved friend, but I can already feel it fading. As time goes by, it will darken and grown dim. The world feels smaller, diminished. There’s less light in it, now.
The art of the past is disappearing, because Art, like Nature, is vulnerable to decay, neglect, and greed. The ever-escalating cost of buying and insuring art means that permanent collections in public museums can’t grow, and great paintings can’t travel, and what’s lost can’t be replaced. At the same time, support for contemporary art is being eroded by budget cuts and chilled by threats of censorship. The art of the present, as well as the art of the past, needs to be nurtured and protected. I can only hope that the shock of the losses at the Gardner will make us realize that Art could become another endangered species.
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com