ST. PETERSBURG — When browsing art auctions for a suitable addition to their collection, Adele Gilbert and her husband, Dr. Gordon Gilbert, looked for certain telling traits.
Did the painting exude quality?
Did it contain a richness of detail?
Did it speak to the larger issues of life and death?
Out of the dozen or so works her husband liked, Mrs. Gilbert had a way of paring the choices down to one. Years of self-study led the couple to become expert in 16th and 17th century Flemish and Dutch paintings, particularly those of the vanitas genre. Artists in the genre use still life and sometimes portrait paintings deep in symbolic import; echoing the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which warns, "All is vanity and a striving after wind."
Mrs. Gilbert delved just as deeply into other pursuits, especially her continuing education and her religion. She got a master's degree at age 55, and donated her time counseling recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
When diagnosed with cancer, she made the most of her time. Mrs. Gilbert, who with her husband amassed an art collection that has been displayed widely, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died Saturday of melanoma. She was 72.
In 1975, Mrs. Gilbert enrolled in a yearlong art history course at what is now St. Petersburg College.
She convinced her husband to take a break from his neurology practice and join her in taking the course.
Before long they were planning vacations around art auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's and exploring parts of the Netherlands they had seen in 400-year-old paintings, from the back streets of Delft to the city's towering Nieuwe Kerk church.
Many of their paintings depict biblical scenes; such as Paulus Potter's God Appearing to Abraham at Sichem (1642), a painting by Dutch artist Abraham Bloemaert of Cain killing Abel (about 1588-1592), and a New Testament scene of a Madonna and Child (about 1530).
"If you know Mrs. Gilbert, you know how important the Jewish tradition is to her," said David Connelly, a spokesman for the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. The museum will host an exhibition from the Gilbert family Sept. 17 through Dec. 4.
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., Mrs. Gilbert was a biology major at Simmons College when she met Gordon Gilbert, then a Harvard neurology resident.
After their marriage in 1960, she worked as a bacteriological researcher in the Yale University laboratories.
In 1965 the family moved to St. Petersburg, where Mrs. Gilbert became a certified biofeedback therapist. In the mid 1990s she earned a master's degree in mental health counseling.
She volunteered for years at a group home for what is now Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services.
The home's residents, who were trying to make their way out of lives consumed by addiction, adored her, said Ray Gadd, Gulf Coast's chief executive officer.
"The beauty of Adele when she worked with those clients," Gadd said, "is that she wasn't standoffish with them. She really bonded with the clients, and really cared about them and wasn't judgmental of them."
When doctors diagnosed her with late-stage cancer three years ago, her family feared the worst.
Though she would not recover, Mrs. Gilbert took two trips to the Netherlands with her family, and bicycled there a year ago.
In January Mrs. Gilbert found a painting she and her husband both loved. Double Portrait of a Husband and Wife with Tulip, Bulb and Shells by Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt shows a man and woman wearing black and serious expressions.
The husband holds a tulip in one hand and a bulb in the other. Seashells, another reminder of mortality, complete the picture.
According to Dr. Gilbert, a husband commissioned the painting in 1609 to honor his wife, who had died at 39.
This week in his living room, Dr. Gilbert pointed to the flower in the man's hand as a museum docent might.
"You go from the tulip to the bulb, and back to the tulip — which supports the idea of resurrection," he said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]