Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Mauritshuis visits San Francisco

Carel Fabritius, a painter of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, studied with Rembrandt. On thin evidence, some speculate that he taught Vermeer. I'd never known of him until I visited the Mauritshuis in The Hague in 2004 and was captivated by his small painting The Goldfinch. The painter was born in 1622, and died of injuries sustained in a massive explosion of a gunpowder magazine in Delft, at the unripe age of 32.

I'm pretty sure I remember that, when we visited, Fabritius' Goldfinch was hung in the same room as Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, already launched into stratospheric popularity by the eponymous novel by Tracy Chevalier, and a subsequent film. I'd read the novel, enjoyed it, and discussed it with my reading group. I'm pretty sure I missed the movie; or maybe I saw it and have successfully forgotten it because the book evoked a better story.

Though I was excited in 2004 to have a chance to see Vermeer's masterpiece while visiting The Netherlands, I remember anticipating that the experience would be a wee bit tainted by the widespread, almost cultish worship of the painting in the wake of the recent novel and film. I was wrong. Vermeer's painting was startlingly rich and compelling. It vastly outshone its novelization. I stared at it for a long while. I wandered on to other rooms and came back to stare some more.

Nonetheless, the surprise and strongest impression made by any work on offer at the Mauritshuis was a tiny trompe-l'oeil by a painter I'd never heard of.

I bought a postcard of The Goldfinch in the museum's gift shop, tacked it to the wall beside my desk on returning home, and have been reminded of the pleasure of discovering the painting every day since.

When I learned that the Mauritshuis would be sending a part of its collection around the world while the museum was undergoing an expansion, and that San Francisco's de Young Museum had scored a place on the Mauritshuis tour, I was happiest not at the prospect of seeing Vermeer's painting again, but at the news that The Goldfinch would be included in the show.

Given the opportunity to see the painting again, I gave a bit of thought to my fascination with this little bird. I read a few pieces about the painting (mostly things I could find on-line). Here's what Tom Lubbock had to say in The Independent some six or seven years ago:
Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch is a modest image, painted on board. Its dimensions are not far off an A4 sheet of paper. It shows, with cunning realism, an area of plastered wall, slightly discoloured and wrinkled. A feeding box and a couple of hoops are fixed to it, and perched there - its leg is attached to one hoop - is the little bird itself, depicted life-sized.

And life-like? [...] If the picture were hung on a wall, similar to the one it depicts, then the feed-box, the perch, and the stationary life-sized. bird could all be mistaken for three-dimensional things, standing out, casting plausible shadows. In this case, the discrepancy between subject and paint would simply be abolished. The paint would have turned (as far as the eye is concerned) into a bit of the real world.

In this picture that doesn't quite happen. The most basic necessity of an illusionistic image is that, at all costs, you mustn't notice the pigment. You must see the thing depicted, and not the paint it's made of. And on this point The Goldfinch is divided. Fabritius very efficiently sets up a trompe l'oeil trick. And then he undoes it. The goldfinch itself is all too clearly made of paint.

[...] Look at the finch's head, analysed into slightly squared patches of colour, and the wedges of pigment that make up its beak. Look at the lightning-flash of gold on its wing. The little creature is all a matter of paint, paint applied and shaped by hand.


Fabritius effects a perfect truce between reality and paint. Every brushstroke is true; the painting doesn't take off on a career its own. But every brushstroke is, clearly, also a bit of dried paste. By holding a marvellous balance between unerring observation and overt hand-painting, The Goldfinch holds before you the fundamental discrepancy of Western art. How strange that painting's persuasions should come down to a daubing of coloured mud. How remarkable that coloured mud should be capable of such metamorphosis.
All true, and well-said. But I'm not smart enough about the technicalities of painting for Fabritius' formal accomplishment to strike so deeply.

So what is it about this little painting?

In the end I think it's the chain. Painted in thin, exact strokes, easy to miss if one doesn't look carefully, it's the chain that turns this lifelike bird into a distillation of how I imagine life in 17th century Holland.

All those plump, self-satisfied merchants etched by Rembrandt van Rijn and his contemporaries (many of them also currently on exhibit at the de Young, in a parallel show titled Rembrandt's Century)? A naturally-wild bird chained to a plastered wall perfectly captures their era's bourgeois obsession with acquiring and taming rare, strange, beautiful, foreign things. No wonder that vanitas still-lifes came into morbid flower in the same place and era ... there was something diseased about fetishizing material possession to the degree brought on by Holland's mercantile success. Look no further than the obsession for things that drove Rembrandt himself into bankruptcy ... from Wikipedia:
Rembrandt lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings), and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into Rembrandt's collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals; the prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing. Rembrandt was forced to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660.
And so, Fabritius: a lovely bird, seemingly alive on the canvas, perched on a hoop in the manner of birds ever-ready to fly off on their own mysterious business ... except that this goldfinch can't fly far. The bird is captive. Not a wild thing, but an artifact of wildness, a pretty toy possessed by some owner of pretty 17th century toys.

To me, that thin parabola of chain makes all the melancholy difference in The Goldfinch.

The show from the Mauritshuis is on view at San Francisco's de Young through June 2nd. Though I hopped on the BART and visited spontaneously a few days ago, I'm sure I'll go again before the exhibition moves on. For one, I've promised an old friend to see the show with her. And who knows when I'll have a chance to visit The Hague again?

I bought a second postcard at the de Young on Friday, to mount on the wall of my cubicle at work.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Eureka! Boy led horse to San Francisco's de Young Museum!
Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum
Picasso from Paris at the de Young Museum

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Fabritius' The Goldfinch. Thanks to the British Museum for use of the image of Rembrandt's etching The Shell, © Trustees of the British Museum.


  1. The joy of seeing those lovely paintings and profound or simple prints were amazing. Thank you very much for calling my attention to Fabritius's Goldfinch. I remember that myself bought a postcard of his self-portrait, which, alas, was not part of the show in De Young.

    Matthew Felix Sun

    1. @Matthew: I guess we'll just have to visit The Hague again.....

  2. Well written and thought provoking, especially in the matter of the small chain and its implications and reflections of the culture of the time. I saw the painting when it was at the High in Atlanta in 2012. Almost by accident, I discovered the novel by Donna Tarrt, The Goldfinch. I note that the publisher in the page listing it as first edition, etc., stated that the painting was done on canvas. That is not reflected in the novel--the descriptions there reflect a paiting on board. The book accompanying the limited showing in America has two pages dealing with the matter of the oak board, nail holes, etc.