Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Goldfinch

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) 
The Goldfinch
Oil on panel 
13 ¼ x 9 in. (33.5 x 22.8 cm) 
The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague 

Fr Z recently referred to the painting in his post entitled The Goldfinch

He has a penchant for Italian Christological goldfinches as all we readers of his blog know

The painting has caught public attention because of the exhibition of paintings from the Mauritshuis which has just closed  at The Frick Gallery and will be at the Palazzo Fava in Bologna from 8th February to 25th May 2014

But probably  more importantly because of the new novel by Donna Tartt based on the painting simply called The Goldfinch

It is a great novel. I read it over the Christmas break. I thoroughly recommend it. You will not put it down

If you enjoyed “The Secret History” you will love "The Goldfinch" 

It has been described by critics as Dickensian in its characterisation, plotting and the themes which it pilots through. Justly so

Throughout the novel there runs  the painting of the goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. 

At different times and at different stages the painting assumes different significances as the central character grows up

Theo Decker is the central character of the novel

Theo and his mother have been deserted by his father who has simply disappeared without trace. Theo, then aged 13,  and his mother (an art history graduate who works in an advertising agency) go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see an exhibition featuring one of her favourite paintings — “The Goldfinch” — when a terrorist bomb explodes. 

Theo’s mother is killed, and his life divides, forever, into a Before and After.

I will not say more in case I  ruin the pleasure of the novel for those who wish to read it

But as the novel makes clear there is a parallel

The painting was made in 1654, the same year the artist Carel Fabritius  was killed at age 32 due to an explosion at a gunpowder store in Delft, a tragedy that left more than a hundred people dead and half the city  in smouldering debris

Here is part of  the scene where the mother introduces Theo to the painting and then leaves him to meet later. 

But they never do. The blast intervenes.
"“This is just about the first painting I ever really loved,” my mother was saying. “You’ll never believe it, but it was in a book I used to take out of the library when I was a kid. I used to sit on the floor by my bed and stare at it for hours, completely fascinated—that little guy! And, I mean, actually it’s incredible how much you can learn about a painting by spending a lot of time with a reproduction, even not a very good reproduction. I started off loving the bird, the way you’d love a pet or something, and ended up loving the way he was painted.” ... 
“Anyway, if you ask me,” my mother was saying, “this is the most extraordinary picture in the whole show. Fabritius is making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the world knew before him—not even Rembrandt." 
Very softly—so softly I could barely hear her—I heard the girl whisper: “It had to live its whole life like that?” I’d been wondering the same thing; the shackled foot, the chain was terrible; her grandfather murmured some reply but my mother (who seemed totally unaware of them, even though they were right next to us) stepped back and said: “Such a mysterious picture, so simple. Really tender—invites you to stand close, you know? All those dead pheasants back there and then this little living creature.” ... 
“People die, sure,” my mother was saying. “But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.” ... 
“Theo?” my mother said suddenly. “Did you hear me?”"
We never actually learn what it was Theo`s mother thought that Fabritius knew that no one else before him did. Theo has been distracted by the sight of a little girl and an old man standing near them

So what possibly was it that Fabritius came to realise ? You will have to read the novel

But let us look at the painting and see why this work so simple and artless on its face has a resonance which over the centuries has compelled contemplation by the viewer

And oh, please remember mothers can be mistaken

If you look at it up close at the picture (click it  for an enlarged view) you will see that the brush strokes are simple but impressionistic. 

You are meant to view the work at a distance (click back for an ordinary view)

From a distance one could imagine that the work would easily be mistaken for a genuine pet goldfinch

The effect is one of trompe-l'œil

By the use of light effects and the posing of the body of the bird, he suggests movement and twitching

It is meant to distort the perception between image and reality

It requires a detailed knowledge of perspective to produce what appears to be a three dimensional image

An image of a live being with movement rather than an inanimate still object tests the artist`s skill to the highest

At once the viewer`s attention is captured

In 17th century Holland, it was extremely popular to have live birds as pets either in or outside of a cage. 

This was a great change from keeping birds as food

Their appearance and song were prized above their value as protein

Indeed there was a sort of mania about the fashion and many birds were shipped from the tropical Dutch colonies to satisfy demand amongst the wealthy burghers for such birds

It became a sort of symbol of social status the more rare and exotic a bird one had has a pet

The goldfinch was a popular pet in the Netherlands at the time

They were resident in Holland and the rest of Europe. They did not cost much

They would have been an ideal source of wonderment for a child 

Their little "trick" was drawing water. In Dutch the alternative name for them is "het putterje" (the water drawer) and that is the name by which the painting is known in Holland

As well as lifting up the box lid to peck at seeds inside, it would often use a little bucket to drop into  a small container then lift the bucket up with its beak and drink the water

But of course there is no such container here and no water

It needs water. With water it will perform

The little delicate bird chained at the ankle is at the mercy of the owner and outside forces beyond its ability to control or influence

It has of course no song which we can hear but there is a song. 

The bird looks directly at the viewer. 

In its dark gaze there appears to be a glimmer of recognition of its plight

What we know (and we know little) about Fabritius is derived from his fellow pupil of Rembrandt, Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627 - 1678) in his Introduction to the Academy of Painting (Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst) (1678)

We know that in the divided religious country we now call The Netherlands he was of the Reformed Protestant faith

Like Rembrandt he would have known his Scripture

He would have recalled Matthew 10:
"28 And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna 
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. 
30 Even all the hairs of your head are counted. 
31 So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
In Luke 12 there is the same message but with a difference
"4 I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. 
5 I shall show you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one. 
6 Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?  Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God. 
7 Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows."
Two sparrows cost a penny (an assarion). But if a man spent two pennies he got five sparrows. He got one thrown in for free

The fifth sparrow had no value

But it was still noticed by God and received his attention

Life for Fabritius was indeed tragic

In 1641 he married his childhood sweetheart, the girl next door in fact, Hasselt wit Aeltje Herrmensdr 

In 1642 one of his children (one of twins)  died shortly after birth

In 1643, his wife died giving birth to their third child (who died shortly after)

He suffered money problems and debts

But in 1650 he married for the second time, this time to Agatha van Pruyssen. She was originally from Delft and in 1652 they moved back there

Only two years later he was one of the victims of the Delft explosion which destroyed his house and studio with almost all his works and took the lives of his mother in law and the sitter (the sexton of the Old Church of Delft) whose portrait he was painting

The Goldfinch seems to depict the fragility of life and how life is not a matter of man`s will but rather of chance, circumstance  and forces not within one`s control

But there is a peace and serenity about the work, an equilibrium, a coming to terms

Fabritius would have been very well aware of the artistic iconography of the goldfinch

It eats thistle seeds and its blood red markings are a symbol of the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord

There was a pious legend that a goldfinch attempted to remove the thorns from Christ`s head

Through its virtues of endurance, fruitfulness, and persistence, it was also known as the Paradise Bird

But as Fabritius would have been aware, after the Passion and the Crucifixion come the Resurrection and the Ascension

And there would have been water, the living water promised by Christ at his meeting with the woman at the well in Samaria in John 4

In this painting, one of his last, what we are perhaps seeing is a recollection of times past, a meditation, a reconciliation and a personal statement of faith