Come into the center of the room, and move towards the two long tables. Find a comfortable spot anywhere around, or between, them. Even though Isabella had a passion for all things Italian, it’s with Dutch and Flemish art that she first made her mark as an art collector. That’s what we see in this room. What we also see in this room is evidence of a collector’s worst nightmare. Turn towards the wall that has two large, empty frames.
These frames held two of the thirteen works which were stolen in 1990. They were both paintings by the beloved 17th century Dutch master: Rembrandt. The paintings were cut from their frames during the robbery. The one on the left was a double portrait of a man and his wife. The one on the right was the only seascape Rembrandt ever painted. The absence of these paintings means that Isabella’s original vision for this room isn’t complete. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
Now, look at the large portrait on the wall between them: the man in armor. It’s by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens—who ushered in a looser style to 17th century painting. For example, look at the reflections off his dazzling armor. Rubens painted those reflections with such big, bold strokes! The subject of this portrait is Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. He’s depicted as a general, but he was actually quite an unsuccessful military strategist. But he was one of the great art collectors of his time! Ruben’s depiction of him in armor is probably referring to triumphs in collecting, rather than on the battlefield. And that must’ve been part of the appeal to Isabella; a portrait of a fellow collector. And to add to Isabella’s triumph in getting it, it was the first major painting by Rubens to enter an American collection.
Now, turn directly around, to face the opposite wall. Above the doorway, there’s a sculpture of a man riding a horse. Just to the right of it, move towards that young man in the feathered cap. He’s looking straight out at us. This is a wonderful Rembrandt painting that is still here. It’s a self-portrait the artist made at the age of 23. At that time, he was trying to make a name for himself. He’s showing off his talent to prospective clients—with dramatic lighting, and so many different textures! Over his shoulder he has a jeweled chain, which captures the light with fine detail. I love how that the shadow is obscuring half his face. It invites us to look closer; and to wonder what he’s thinking…
This painting is the work of art which really began this museum. Isabella had made a number of important purchases before this painting, but she kept them at her home. Acquiring this Rembrandt gave her the idea of a museum. She wrote in a letter about the kind of collector she was now going to be; writing, quote: ‘From now on I cannot afford to go after second rate works of art, I must only have first rate works of art.’
She certainly succeeded in her mission. She so carefully arranged conversations between works of art on the walls. As you look at this portrait of a young man, think about how Isabella carefully positioned him across the room from two paintings which he painted later in life. She’s having this young man look out, across the room, and see an illustrious future stretching out before him. This robs us all of Isabella’s complete vision.
Let’s turn away from young Rembrandt now. With your back to this painting, next to the windows, there’s a desk and chair a bit to the right, just ahead of you. There’s another empty frame, another stolen artwork. It’s the museum’s missing Vermeer painting.
I’m going to show you one more object in this room; something you might not have noticed on your own. Move ahead from the desk and the empty frame, toward the tall painting of a man wearing the red cape. To the right of that painting, there’s a tall wooden cabinet. There are three shelves inside. On the middle shelf, look for the tallest object. It’s in the shape of an ostrich. Do you see it? If you look closely under its wing, you can see that the silver body is formed around an actual ostrich egg. It’s from 17th century Germany. At the time, the egg would have been as highly prized as the fine silver around it! Because ostriches were such giant birds found only in Africa, Europeans considered them ‘wonders of nature’. Objects like this were popular in European private collections that were sometimes called “cabinets of curiosities.” They were precursors to museums. Having something from one of these early European collections surely appealed to Isabella’s view of herself as a collector—and to the idea of forming her own museum filled with the most wondrous objects she could find.
To learn more about the story of the theft, there’s a book called ‘Stolen,’ on the bench near the Courtyard windows. There’s also a feature about it on the museum’s website.