Carel Fabritius (1622-1654)
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