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Thursday 8 December 2011

Carel Fabritius: The Goldfinch


The Goldfinch: Carel Fabritius, 1654 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

The painter Carel Fabritius was born in 1632, the son of a schoolteacher in Midden Beemster, a polder town then only recently reclaimed from peat bog and marsh land. As a boy he worked as a carpenter (Lat. fabritius), which may be the source of his self-selected art-historical name. A poem in his memory written by Arnold Bon calls him Karel Faber: Karel the Maker. It seems his father may have been his first painting instructor. As a boy he went to Amsterdam to study for two years under Rembrandt. (Carel's brother Barent, two years younger and also a painter, may well have followed him to study and work under the same master.) He was perhaps Rembrandt's most gifted pupil. The influence of master upon student is apparent in an early Fabritius self-portrait, done in his twenty-third year.

Self-Portrait: Carel Fabritius, 1645 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

Returning to Beemster in the 1640s, the earnest learner would step out of his teacher's large shadow, establish his own studio and develop his art beyond that of the famous master, abandoning Rembrandt's characteristic dark backgrounds for backgrounds in light, textured colours.

' mastery of trompe l'oeil effects, made possible by deft handling of a loaded brush, set him off from other painters of his day. His figures emerge as shapes in the world, cool and luminous. They convey not solitudes burdened with Rembrandtian earthen gravity but harmonious interrelations of colour and light. Space and light become new media of experiment in Fabritius' hands.

In the early 1650s Fabritius moved to Delft, where he became a member of the local painters' guild, and exerted a strong influence upon other painters working in the city at the time, including Vermeer and de Hooch.

His innovative exploration of the manipulation of illusion through radical perspective appears in the remarkable 1652 A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall, in which the curious perspectival distortion has led art historians to speculate that the canvas might once have been attached to the back wall of a peep-box.
In this painting, the writing on the wall by the shadow of the lute is the artist's signature: C. Fabritius, inscribed in the perspective of the scene.

A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall: Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), 1652 (National Gallery, London)

The exquisite delicacy of Fabritius' lighting effects can be seen most notably in his masterpiece,
The Goldfinch (1654), a painting at once wonderful in its assimilation into the substantial being of the chained pet bird, and terribly sad -- who can look intently at this picture without experiencing the inner wish that the lonesome tethered creature be set free?

Fabritius was still but a young man of 32 when his art -- and life -- were cut short by catastrophe. On 12 October 1654, thirty tons of gunpowder, stored in barrels in a magazine in a former convent, were ignited when a keeper opened the store for inspection. The "Delft Thunderclap," as it was called, destroyed a quarter of the city. Fabritius' studio, and many of his paintings, were lost. (Only about a dozen have survived.) Fabritius, his student Mattias Spoors and a church deacon, Simon Decker, who were working together with him on a painting at the time, all died as a result of the blast.
View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654, in which most of the city was damaged: Egbert van der Poel (1621-1664), 1654 (National Gallery, London)

Self-Portrait: Carel Fabritius, 1654 (National Gallery, London)


Conrad DiDiodato said...

I like the way an artist's (and goldfinch's) own moods insinutate themselves into what's a very representational work. I don't believe there's any great artwork that can't be associated with some emotion.

Fabritius proves it to me.

TC said...


Total agreement and seconding of that e-motion.

I think representation has been given a bum rap by a bunch of patronizing superior no-talent postmodern phonies who have no idea what it might take to grind your own pigments, make a sketch from life, handle your materials with a wizard touch and thus, after years of hard work, study in craft skills and close observation, turn a bird's feather into a feeling that's still real after 400 years.

I wouldn't trade a single Fabritius brushstroke for all Tracey Emin's bloody bedsheets, even if you threw in the complete works of Derrida (oh no, TWO weeks in Philadelphia!).

Anonymous said...

Fabritius' Goldfinch is so very wonderful. Was a pleasant surprise being greeted by it so early in the morning. The poor thing just never gets away . . .

I lean more toward the abstract (though not the coy artifacts of capital I think you're referring to under the name "postmodern phonies"), but I quite agree with you that the craftsmanship of a classical representational painting, or sculpture, is something that likely cannot be matched in the field of visual arts.

TC said...

Amen to that, Brad. Also, yes and mais oui.

But if only, just once, it would take wing, pull out the tether-ring, and fly away...

Oops. No more painting.

The rising eddies of an aporia swirl about one's nose.

I've given some thought at times to the studio-situation.

Was there a time when the goldfinch was given respite from modeling, and hopefully, allowed the avian equivalent of being put out to pasture (as in, being let out the window, to be free as... a bird?).

This is a crux.

I'd wager there was no such time. Perhaps a cage, however.

Which would be worse, to be caged, or to be tethered?

(I suspect we experience a little of each, every day and night, without even having the blessing, or would it be curse, of wings.)

Apologies, by the way, for "phonies", showing the acidic edge of age and probably also innate bad disposition.

I should more properly have said "frauds".

But if anything I have said, or ever would say, should give offense to any esteemed visitor, I would rush to add, "present company excepted," as well as, "I do appreciate my friends and count myself blest to have them, even if it's sometimes hard to tell."

ACravan said...

Thanks (more than I can say) for this, which lifted me way up from doldrums. (I better sustain the forward motion.) Re Tracey Emin, she's proof that there are indeed dull (scratch that -- ultra-dull) mysteries in the world. Curtis

Anonymous said...

I took no offense, so no apologies are necessary for me. I am thick-skinned and can handle many acidity levels, those directed at me or not. (Though it didn't even cross my mind that such a phrase might be me.) "Phonies" or "frauds," either works, I think, though the most guilty are probably those who too-eagerly accept and then bandy about the term "postmodern" as though it means anything in particular. Many a contemporary artist & writer has suffered under that label (even somebody as old, and now dead, as William Gaddis) -- those who suffer, or at least ignore it, I can appreciate; those who glory in it, are mostly odious.

TC said...

Happily for the (too rare) Gaddises of this world, they never knew what was going to hit them.

And the Traceys (too numerous) DID know, and as the headlights neared, grew larger and larger...


Anonymous said...

I don't actually know much about Emin's work. Most of what I've seen has been disappointing. But at least photograph of hers has sparked much creative activity on my part. Indeed, one never quite knows -- and sometimes finds himself embarrassed by -- his Muses.

TC said...

Thanks Brad, perhaps a useful acquaintance for those sectors of this (vast) audience who have yet to share the painful intimacies of The Trace's self-portraiture.

It's weird, a thousand years ago when I was doing the young poet thing, another equally unexceptional young poet I knew, tired of not getting famous by the slow route (is there a fast route to not getting famous?) managed to land himself smack dab in the middle of the avant (but can an avant have a middle?) by doing unpleasant things to his person in public.

That sort of "art", like Tracey's, always seemed to me to indicate more about the sucke--oops the audiences, who would wish to see humans doing such things, than about the artists, who for all we know might have preferred doing something else, if only something else might have made them famous with equal celerity.

(One feels for the hired help who's stuck with doing the laundry.)

Now if only Tracey would quit wanking in public for a minute, and set out on a new quest... let's say, to release caged goldfinches into what used to be called "the wild".

If you have a houseful of (for once) peacefully sleeping grumpy old cats, and want to awaken them, and drive them totally bonkers, just pipe in some goldfinch song.

(It's beautiful singing, but... a bit reminiscent of the line from Stan Freberg's version of The Banana Boat Song -- "too piercing, man, too piercing!")

Nin Andrews said...

My sister who is an artist had become so non-representational after art school, I am often not sure which piece is finished . . . I, being the most literal minded of the literal-minded. I was accused by poetry professors of reading poems as if they were short short stories, and by philosophy professors of making Cliff Notes out of Hegel. Ah, well.

And then for some reason I am stuck on the idea of the value of work, and I am reminded that Schopenhauer said that you should only read a book when it is 100 years old . You can never know the value of contemporary works. (He was also very sad that no one read his work.)



What a pleasure to find Fabritius's goldfinch coming up on the screen! And so suddenly there were two, the one on the screen and the one to the left of the kitchen window (somewhat faded now, in its 5 x 7 glass frame, listening for the occasional goldfinch maybe calling out there on coyote bush in the field (such a beautiful long performance of notes on your link here!). . . .


light coming into sky above black plane
of ridge, planet next to cypress branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

turning to objects, “return”
to the way light fell

as line begins, and falling,
almost seems familiar

orange of sun above shoulder of ridge,
white cloud in pale blue sky above it

aditya said...


Fabulous paintings and everything.

I was reading thru Moliere's Misanthrope (Alceste) right when I saw this post and then the comments.

The trick at times is .. not to open your mouth?

I wonder if you fancy an Alcest without an e

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Thank you for the Fabritius--unknown to me up till now. (Do I see a resemblance between his self-portrait and a once youthful but now older poet who also paints?)

My "Goldfinch":



In the golden autumn
Leaves of the Judas tree,

There is a solitary

Whose every note threatens
To betray him.

TC said...

Lovely, all this.

It's beginning to feel almost like old home week for Goldfinches.