The Goldfinch: a painting by a forgotten genius Fabritius

Fabritius The goldfinch
Carel Fabritius. The Goldfinch. 33.5 x 22.8 cm. 1654. The Mauritshuis Royal Gallery, The Hague
“He (Fabritius) was Rembrandt’s disciple and Vermeer’s teacher… And this tiny canvas (The Goldfinch painting) is that very missing link between them.”
Quote from Donna Tartt’s novel “The Goldfinch” (2013)
Before the novel by Donna Tartt has been published, few people have ever heard about such an artist as Fabritius (1622-1654).
Much less his small painting The Goldfinch (33 x 23 cm).
But it was thanks to the writer that the world recalled the master. And became interested in his painting.
Fabritius lived in the 17th century’s Netherlands. During the Golden Age of Dutch painting. At the same time he was extremely talented.
But he was forgotten. Only art experts consider him to be a milestone in the art development and fuss over The Goldfinch. But common people – even the art connoisseurs – know little about him.
How could it happen? And what is special about this tiny Goldfinch?

Why is The Goldfinch so unique?

A bird’s perch is attached to a pale, bare wall. A little goldfinch is sitting on the upper bar. The enslaved bird. A chain is attached to its foot, almost not allowing it take wing.
Goldfinches were favorite birds in Holland in the 17th century, since they could be trained to drink water that they scooped up with a small bucket. It entertained bored hosts.
Fabritius’ Goldfinch is one of so-called quodlibet paintings. They were extremely popular in Holland at that time. It entertained for the painting owners as well – to amaze guests with its 3D effect.
But unlike many other quodlibets of the time, the work by Fabritius has one significant difference.
Take a closer look at the bird. Could you see anything unusual in it?
Fabritius the goldfinch fragment
Carel Fabritius. The Goldfinch (fragment). 1654 The Mauritshuis Royal Gallery, The Hague
Wide, careless strokes. They look as if uncompleted, which creates an illusion of plumage.
In some places the paint is slightly shaded with a finger and there are faint spots of lilac paint on the head and the breast. All these elements create a defocusing effect.
In fact, the bird is alive, but for some reason, Fabritius decided to depict it out of focus. As if the bird is moving, and this makes the image slightly blurry. Doesn’t it resemble impressionism to you?
However, they knew nothing either about cameras or such photo effect at that time. However, the artist intuitively felt that it would make the image look more alive.
This makes a great difference between Fabritius and his contemporaries. Especially the ones specialized in quodlibets. Unlike Fabritius, they were sure that realistic means clear.
Look at a typical quodlibet by artist Van Hoogstraten.
Samuel Van Hoogstraten. Still life quodlibet
Samuel Van Hoogstraten. Still life quodlibet. 1664. The Dordrecht Museum of Art, Netherlands

If we zoom the image, it will still look clear. All the strokes are hidden, all objects are finely and neatly painted.

Van Hoogstraten. Still life quodlibet (detail). 1664
Van Hoogstraten. Still life quodlibet (detail). 1664. The Dordrecht Museum of Art, Netherlands

Why is Fabritius special?

Fabritius spent 3 years in Amsterdam learning from Rembrandt. But he quickly developed his own painting.
If Rembrandt preferred to paint the light on the dark, Fabritius depicted the dark on the light. In this regard, The Goldfinch is typical for him.
This difference between the teacher and the student can be seen especially clearly on portraits, with the painting by Fabritius being not inferior to Rembrandt’s.
Fabritius and Rembrandt
Left: Carel Fabritius. Self-portrait. 1654. The National Gallery, London. Right: Rembrandt. Self-portrait. 1669. The same place.
Rembrandt didn’t like daylight and created his own world, woven of a surreal, magical glow. Fabritius refused this style of painting, preferring to use sunlight. And became skillful in depicting it. Just look at The Goldfinch.
This fact can tell us a lot. After all, when you are learning from a great master, recognized by everyone (already recognized), you can feel like copying him in everything.
That’s what many students did. But not Fabritius. His stubbornness is an evidence of a great talent. And of his eagerness to go his own way.

Fabritius’ secret, which we don’t talk about

And now, I will tell you something that art experts prefer not to talk about.
Perhaps, the secret of the bird’s incredible vividness in the fact that Fabritius was… a photographer. Yes, a 17th century photographer!
As I have already mentioned, Fabritius painted The Goldfinch in an extremely unusual technique. A realist would depict everything very clearly: every feather, every eye.
Why did the artist add a photo effect of a partially blurred image?
I understood why he did it after watching Tim Jenison’s movie Tim’s Vermeer dated 2013.
An engineer and inventor was deciphering the technique used by Jan Vermeer. I provided more details on it in the article about the artist “Jan Vermeer. Why is the master unique.”
But what’s true for Vermeer, applies to Fabritius as well. After all, one day he moved from Amsterdam to Delft! The town where Vermeer lived. The chances are high that the latter taught our hero the following technique.
An artist takes a lens and places it behind himself so that it could reflect the object in question.
The artist catches the object’s reflection in the lens with a mirror on an improvised tripod, holding this mirror in front of himself (between his eyes and the canvas).
He selects the same color as in the mirror, working along the border between its edge and the canvas. As soon as he selects the right color, the border between the reflection and the canvas visually disappears.
Then the mirror is shifted a little and the artist selects a color of another micro part. This is the way how all the nuances and even defocusing that can appear when working with lenses, were transferred.
In fact, Fabritius was… a photographer. He transferred a lens projection to the canvas. He did NOT selected colors. Did NOT select forms. But he skillfully worked with tools!
Art experts don’t like this hypothesis. After all, so much has been said about the ingeniously selected colors (which the artist did not choose), about the created image (although this image is real, thoroughly transmitted, as if photographed). Nobody wants to take their words back.
However, not everyone treats this hypothesis skeptically.
A famous contemporary artist David Hockney also believes that many Dutch masters used lenses. And Jan Van Eyck used this very method to paint his “The Arnolfini Portrait”. Let aloneVermeer with Fabritius.
But this doesn’t make them less genius. After all, such a method requires ability to choose acomposition. As well as skills to work with paints. And few artists can depict the magic of light.

Fabritius’ tragic death

Fabritius died tragically at the age of 32. The reasons for that were completely beyond his control.
In case of an unexpected invasion, there was a powder depot in every Dutch town. In October 1654, an accident happened. This depot blew up, as well as one third of the town.
At that time Fabritius was working on a portrait in his studio. There he kept many others of his works. He was still young and his paintings didn’t sell well.
Only 10 of his paintings survived, as at that time they were in private collections. Including The Goldfinch.
Egbert Van der Poel. View of Delft after the Explosion. 1654.
Egbert Van der Poel. View of Delft after the Explosion. 1654. The National Gallery, London
If it was not for sudden death, I am sure that Fabritius would have made many other discoveries in painting. Probably, he could speed up the art development. Or maybe it would go a little different way. But it went awry…
By the way, The Goldfinch by Fabritius has never been stolen from the museum, as it’s described in the book by Donna Tartt. It is safely hanging in the Hague gallery. Next to the works by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

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