“One pitfall in the art world is to romanticize paintings and artists. I believe I resisted that.”
Carol Orange is a lot like the protagonist in A Discerning Eye. Fondly recalling her introduction to art as a frosh at Cornell, she said, “At first, I was captivated by Greek sculptures … but then the Renaissance painters and sculptors won my heart.”
Like the character Portia in her book, Orange “swooned over paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Paolo Uccello, Raphael, Donatello and Titian.” In the time since, she has worked in London as a research editor in the art book world and in Boston as an art dealer.
In the middle of it all, a crime novel was born …
As someone who has been around the art world in various capacities, what were some of the cliches and pitfalls you were sure to avoid in taking on a project about an institution and group of works that are so near and dear to people?
One pitfall in the art world is to romanticize paintings and artists. I believe I resisted that. My descriptions of art and artists in A Discerning Eye are factual, although emotions are evoked. Isabella Stewart Gardner is a legendary figure in Boston, and a pitfall would have been to describe her in purely glowing terms.
While Portia Malatesta, my protagonist, worshipped Isabella Gardner’s discerning eye and determination to create her palazzo which later became a museum, Portia was aware of Isabella’s weaknesses. She didn’t like that Isabella placed some valuable art on mantel pieces where someone could knock them over. She found it odd that Isabella did not invest as much money in security—she hired Harvard Dean’s list students as guards—as she did in her greenhouses.
Of course, back in Isabella’s day security was not as big an issue as it is today. In my novel, both Isabella Gardner and Portia Malatesta are three-dimensional. I wrote about their flaws as well as their strengths.
Frankly, it’s exciting to see characters around a Boston heist who aren’t old mob types for a change, though of course they have their part as well. How much of a “Boston book” would you say A Discerning Eye is? Is this a heist story that particularly reflects this region? How so? Any details pop out in particular?
This is definitely a Boston book, although part of it takes place in Medellin, Colombia. Portia Malatesta, the protagonist is a South End resident with a gallery on Newbury Street. She is a docent at the Gardner Museum. Her 10-year-old daughter goes to Buckingham Browne and Nichols in Cambridge. Her brother Antonio teaches art at the Museum School. Portia and Antonio often meet at the Gardner Museum, where they sit together on a bench near Vermeer’s The Concert. She walks in the Public Gardens where she meets a lawyer, Paul Travigne who introduces her to his friend at the FBI. He lives on Marlborough Street. Portia’s best collector Nick Moretti, a retired Boston dentist, introduces Portia to two local mafia art collectors who were former patients. They meet at the St. Botolph Club, where Portia tries to get information from them about the Gardner heist. Portia’s neighbors and friends in the South End including the leading cellist with the BSO and the sculptor Khalil Gibran. She takes her daughter to a reading of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the South End public library. Before she owned a gallery, Portia worked at the Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge. Portia imagines meeting Isabella Gardner at the Charles River Speedway in Brighton where they discuss the stolen Degas watercolors.
Between technology, and surveillance, and pandemics, and a million other things, are there ever going to be good and believable art heist stories set in the future? Or are we basically going to be working with the last hundred or so years for eternity? Anything that you have in the works?
I think that small museums with limited funds unfortunately will still be more vulnerable to art heists than larger art institutions with technology and surveillance. There was a fairly recent art heist in Paris at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville by a clever thief named Vjeran Tomic who was crazy about art.
My next novel features two of the characters in A Discerning Eye. Portia Malatesta and Julian Henderson from the FBI’s art crime team have now become private investigators. They are hired by a Cambridge family to find Nazi stolen art in a small town in Germany.
How long did it take you to write A Discerning Eye?
About 10 years. I worked full time to earn money and had to steal the time to write. As a former Bostonian and art dealer I was enchanted with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and its superb art collection. I idolized Isabella Gardner’s persona. She was a fascinating woman with a discerning eye. When I first learned that the paintings were stolen, I was horrified that someone had violated this sacred space and deprived the public of the pleasure of viewing these masterpieces. I’ve always been a mystery reader and began to fantasize about who could have done it and why. Writing the novel helped me deal with my anguish from the loss of the art at my favorite place.
Today there’s a $10 million dollar reward for information leading to the safe recovery of the Gardner Museum’s stolen art. Do you remain hopeful it will be recovered?
I am hopeful. I imagine that when the mastermind dies, his heirs will discover this incredible trove of hidden paintings and will decide to return them to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The younger generation often wishes to make amends for the sins of their parents.