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Art Stories: Èdouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni — Don’t Move the Ancient Markers

“Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set.” Proverbs 22:28

Èdouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni is a small 10 x 13 inch canvas of a man in a top hat and black coat sitting at a table in the Cafe Tortoni de Paris. The man, pen in hand, is drawing or writing. A half finished glass of beer sits on his table. Chez Tortoni was painted sometime between 1878 and 1880.

In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers entered Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and subdued the two night watchmen on duty. The thieves bound the guards, covered their eyes and mouths with tape, and chained them to pipes on opposite ends of the basement. After this, they spent the next eighty-one minutes selecting and loading thirteen irreplaceable pieces of art into a vehicle waiting outside. (I wrote a longer essay on this heist here.)

The thieves left Manet’s empty frame sitting propped up in a chair in the security supervisor’s office. The painting itself, along with the rest of the art stolen that night, has not been seen since. Russ Ramsey

The stolen works included Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert (one of only 35 confirmed Vermeers in existence), a Flinck landscape, a three thousand year old Chinese vase from the Shang Dynasty, five Degas, three Rembrandts (one, a postage stamp sized self-portrait etching; one, his formal Lady and Gentleman in Black; and last, one of the Museum’s most prominently displayed works, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee), and Èdouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni.

The thieves drove off quietly past the homes and businesses of Fenway, never to be heard from again. Together, the thirteen stolen pieces of art amounted to the largest property theft in America’s history with an estimated value of more than 500 million dollars.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened its doors to the public in January of 1903. Ms. Gardner built her museum because she wanted to bring something into this world that would not perish. She poured herself into the project. She was not content to simply meet with her builders and pay her contractors. She designed every aspect of the museum herself. Her architect, William Sears, joked that on this particular job he was little more than a carpenter and mechanical engineer carrying out the true architect’s vision.

At the time of her death in 1924, Isabella had accumulated more than 2,500 tapestries, manuscripts, rare books, sculptures, pieces of furniture, and masterworks from Titian, Vermeer, Flinck, Michelangelo, Raphael, Whistler, Degas, Manet, Sargent, Botticelli, and the Dutch master himself, Rembrandt. She had given them a home. More than that, she had given them places of honor to be savored by the “rapt glad faces of those who love art.”[1]

Eighty one minutes. The sensors on the security door revealed that the thieves had to make two trips. They had plenty of time to handle the art with care, but it seems they chose not to. One Rembrandt was left behind, lying on the floor, bent and scuffed. The frame for Vermeer’s The Concert had been knocked out and lay discarded in the hall.

As for Chez Tortoni, in what could only be seen as an act of mockery, the thieves left Manet’s empty frame sitting propped up in a chair in the security supervisor’s office. The painting itself, along with the rest of the art stolen that night, has not been seen since.

People who knew Isabella’s vision for the museum were deeply offended by the theft— not because of how much the stolen art was worth, but because what the thieves did was rude. They moved the ancient landmark Isabella had set, and in doing so dishonored her desire to give her community and all who came to visit something lasting and beautiful.

Manet’s man in black in Chez Tortoni looks directly at the viewer. Did the thieves who lifted him off the wall make eye contact with this artifact they cared so little about? Did they feel any shame? Have they ever been startled awake from a nightmare in which Manet’s man in black is staring back at them? And in the dream, is his glass of beer now empty?


About the Art: Édouard Manet, Chez Tortoni, ca. 1879-1880, oil on canvas, 26 cm × 34 cm (10 in × 13 in). Stolen. Whereabouts unknown.

[1] From John Updike’s poem, Stolen. 2000.


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