Self-Portraits and Empty Frames in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
by Jessica Vestuto
My apartment is small, the picture-hanging real estate even smaller—two large windows and a row of cabinets in the kitchenette leave limited surface into which you can hammer a nail. I have lived in Boston for a few months, and in a few months, I managed to acquire a varied collection of wall art. A New Yorker cover. A travel ad for Chamonix. A Bauhaus poster. A photo of young David Bowie riding a subway in Japan, all blonde and cheekbones. With each new piece, the surrounding empty space on the wall becomes more obvious, and the space bothers me until it is filled. On the phone with my sister one night, I learn my collection had become cause for familial concern. “Mom thinks you have so much hanging on your walls because you’re lonely,” she says.
“If I were lonely,” I say, “I doubt hanging pictures would make me feel any less lonely.”
A few days later, I decide to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Built by art collector and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1903, the museum has a diverse collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and textiles. It feels more like a home than public institution, with low-lighting and narrow hallways. Inside the museum, I feel I entered someone else’s mind, each room with its own logic, each doorway a non sequitur. Most of the art is unlabeled, as though each object signifies some precious memory known only by its owner, an intimacy that defies systemization. I pass the courtyard in the middle of the building, brimming with exotic palms, shrubs, ferns, and flowers, a reminder that there’s no limit to what can spring from the ground. Surrounded by all that ornateness, I wonder whether anyone ever accused Isabella Stewart Gardner of being lonely, ever walked into the museum, looked around, and said, This is what loneliness will do. It’s difficult to imagine Gardner any less self-assured than she appears in portraits, her limbs easy and confident, her neck draped in pearls, well-versed in her own beauty, building an empire of her own preference. She once caused uproar by wearing a headband to the Boston Symphony Orchestra that read, Oh, you Red Sox. She collected paintings, statues, ceramics, tapestries, stained glass. When her husband’s brother died, she collected his three children, raised them as her own. When the ceiling beams for the museum were too smooth for her liking, she took an ax, hacked at the wood, and did not stop until they were exactly as she wanted.
These days, I wish I had a fraction of Gardner’s decisiveness. I stay home and wish I went out; I go out and wish I stayed home. I watch couples, families, owners with well-behaved dogs on the street, creatures who seem too happy being leashed. I imagine another version of myself, one who goes to the graduate school I turned down, who lives in different city and in an apartment with clean, empty walls. I’m certain that this person is happier than I am. I’m certain that certainty is ridiculous. I want to able to face change without seeing an immediate, corresponding loss. I want to stop feeling like I’m only knocking on the door of my life, to be admitted.
On the second floor of the museum, I enter a gallery with large empty frames on the far wall. In 1990, thirteen pieces were stolen from the museum. Afterward, the frames of the stolen art were returned to their original spots on the wall. The frames once held masterpieces but now display a square of the wall tapestry, the same tapestry that covers the entire room. I’m the kind of person drawn to such obvious signs of symbolism, the sort to linger too long at graffiti scrawled on bridges, to stare at mundane from every angle until some deeper meaning appears. As the gallery filled, I watch people walk by and comment on the empty frames. The groups shuffle and pause, shuffle and pause, as though the elasticity of their togetherness might break if they moved too quickly. One person says the frames are like scars. Another says they’re signs of hope, marking homes from the paintings to return to. Another claims it’s a matter of legality: “It’s because of Gardner’s will. They have to leave everything exactly where she had it. Otherwise it all goes to Harvard.”
Across from an empty frame that had held one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces is an early self-portrait by the artist. The young man is lavishly dressed in a plumped cap and silk scarf, his face expressionless, his eyes two little identical stones. A tour guide ushers a group to the painting. She tells them to look for binaries in the painting. “Rembrandt was just twenty-three when he did this portrait,” she says. “At this point, he had been told he had talent, but was completely unsure if anything would ever come from it. Find the binaries.” She circles a taut palm in the air toward the painting, as if clearing fogged glass. “He’s confident, but profoundly insecure.”
When the group dispersed, I walk over to Rembrandt’s self-portrait. The artist receives the most praise for his later paintings, marked by fine details rendered in rich colors and dramatic lighting, capturing wrinkles on a face in a way that makes aging seem not so terrible. By comparison, the self-portrait is softer, the features painted by less assertive strokes from a less assertive hand. In the configuration of the room, the man in the self-portrait looks out onto the empty frame, his eyes locked on the wall’s vacancy. I imagine young Rembrandt, when the thieves took his later masterpiece, witnessing the crime, silenced and immobilized in oil paint as they cut out the canvas and left.
The art heist was tragic, but I cannot help finding pleasure in its result. I love the empty frames. They are soothing, like a warm bath for the eyes. Truthfully, I want an entire museum of emptiness—empty frames, empty pedestals, spotlights aimed at nothing. Pamphlets and headsets and tour guides that can tell you more about nothing. Guards that snap, please don’t touch the nothing. Everything trimmed in expensive and meticulously carved wood, hung by professionals, lit for optimal viewing. For now, I can still imagine a life where this is possible, a life where loss is contained, confined in a familiar shape, able to be admired. But this image is not as clear as it once was. How loss behaves, I’m learning, is only known after the fact.
I lock eyes with the man in the painting. We are the same age. We are both twenty-three. We are both confident and profoundly insecure. We stare blankly ahead at what’s missing, waiting for something to divert our attention.
Jessica Vestuto studies writing at Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Salon, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.