Back in Mrs. Gardner’s museum, the crowds come and go. On a late winter day, sunlight splashes the mottled pink walls of the palazzo’s inner court, where orchids bloom and schoolchildren sit with their sketchbooks, serenaded by water tumbling into an old stone pool placed there by Isabella Stewart Gardner. In her instructions for the museum that bears her name, she decreed that within the marble halls of her palace, each Roman statue, each French tapestry, each German silver tankard, each folding Japanese screen, and each of the hundreds of glorious paintings she loved so well should remain forever just as she had left them.
That is why today, upstairs on the second floor in the Dutch Room, where Rembrandt’s roughed up 1629 self-portrait has been returned to its rightful place on the north wall, the painter stares out across the room, his eyes wide and brows arched, regarding a ghastly blank space where his paintings ought to be. All that’s left are the empty frames.