In the late morning hours of Oct. 12, 1654, a cataclysmic explosion of gunpowder magazines decimated the northeast quadrant of the peaceful Dutch city of Delft, leveling its modest houses, damaging its elegant churches and killing hundreds of its inhabitants. Among the victims was the 32-year-old painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). Although his art would be rediscovered and celebrated by Théophile Thoré-Bürger, the esteemed 19th-century French critic, and he is considered, along with Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, one of the great triumvirate of the 17th-century Delft school, only a handful of works can with certainty be ascribed to Fabritius today. His tiny (about 13-by-9-inch) painted panel of “The Goldfinch” (Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague), signed and dated to the final year of his life, suggests the magnitude of what was lost when the painter perished that day along with much of his art.
The painting is an impressive record of the artist’s heralded gifts for illusionism and brilliant trompe l’oeil techniques.
His first biographers remembered Fabritius as a master of marvelous optical effects. His highly unusual “View of Delft” of 1652 (National Gallery, London), for example, situates a genre scene amid familiar urban landmarks in an anamorphic, wide-angled townscape. Painted, atypically, on a canvas instead of a wooden panel, it was probably designed to be viewed in a cylindrical perspective box, where its evident distortions, seen through a single peephole, would disappear. Though none have survived, Fabritius was widely known as a maker of perspective boxes, which were also favored by some of his Dutch contemporaries, and they constituted only one aspect of the vogue for sophisticated illusionistic effects that became a passion for elite patrons and painters in Delft. “The Goldfinch,” while not dependent on such optical implements or spatial sleights of hand, is equally impressive as a record of the painter’s heralded gifts for illusionism and brilliant trompe l’oeil techniques.
Against a luminous, whitewashed wall—a hallmark of the Delft school but here marked by crumbling plasterwork and patches of scumbled, slate-blue priming—Fabritius paints to scale a common goldfinch tethered by a delicate metal chain. The artist’s name and the date at the lower edge appear not painted but incised into the same blue-gray ground, and the color is repeated in the square feedbox at center, in cast shadows, in underpainting on the circular wooden rungs, and in the bird’s soft down. The composition is elegant in its spare simplicity: Only the goldfinch and its shadow offset the subtle balance of hard edges and swagging curves that create its perfect symmetry.
The slope of the box, the slanted shade, and the steep angle at which we see the bird suggest that Fabritius intended his small painting to be hung high and viewed at a slight distance, the vantage point at which its captured illusion of a tiny creature peering down from its perch is most convincing. The painter draws us near, however, with the dazzling virtuosity of his brushwork. Strokes of paint remain perceptible on the surface and range from veils of thin pigment and soft swirls of darkened reds to crusted threads of glistening white impasto.
As a young artist, Fabritius had worked in Rembrandt’s atelier in Amsterdam (along with Samuel van Hoogstraten, also known for his optical conceits), and his study under the aging Dutch master may be evoked here in his rapid, painterly brushwork and in the brilliant passage of lead-tin yellow at center that is marked by a long, thin scratch. Using the butt of his brush to slice into still-wet paint, Fabritius reveals dark underpainting and also his debt to a technique Rembrandt had employed in his early work. But the radiant, atmospheric tones that spill across the panel’s surface reflect not so much Rembrandt’s color range as the new, lightened palette Fabritius adopted when he moved to Delft in 1650. For all of its stunning illusionism, the diminutive painting beautifully encapsulates its maker’s tragically abbreviated career.
Yet beyond its sheer artistry, how, we might ask, was Fabritius’s depiction of a goldfinch originally meant to function? The bird had often appeared in scenes of Dutch interiors. A favored household pet, its Dutch nickname, puttertje (from putten—to draw water), referred to its trick, if trained, of drawing its own drinking water from a bowl using a thimble-sized bucket on a chain, something the painter Gerard Dou featured in his genre paintings. The goldfinch had also figured in countless devotional images as a symbol of death and resurrection, its small spot of red plumage an allusion to Christ’s passion.
Some scholars have argued that Fabritius’s panel may once have had such an emblematic purpose: Its unusual mitered corners and the nail holes on its vertical edges point to its original function as a door, perhaps with hinges attached to its frame, that could have opened to reveal an encased painting behind it. Baroque Dutch painters, including Dou, often fashioned such boxes as elegant, protective packaging for small panels hidden within, and adorned their lids with deceptively naturalistic still lifes that hinted at the imagery inside. Although nothing in Fabritius’s scant surviving oeuvre fits this description, two 17th-century inventories mention, mysteriously, a “small case” painted by the artist. In such a context, the verisimilitude of Fabritius’s goldfinch would have been matched by a symbolic meaning that we can no longer fathom.
And surely it is this, the panel’s utter freedom from the conventions of quotidian Dutch genre and from tired iconographic traditions—as well as its tour-de-force, unfettered illusionism—that has made it such a treasure to legions of later viewers, from Thoré-Bürger, who owned it until his death and cherished it above all else in his collection, to such contemporary artists as Helen Frankenthaler, herself a master of unerring displays of pure painting. Long mistakenly thought to have been merely a teacher to the far more famous Vermeer, Fabritius clearly holds his own in the illustrious history of painting in 17th-century Holland.
Ms. Lewis, who writes frequently about the arts, teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford.
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