The Goldfinch (painting)

The Goldfinch
Dutch: Het puttertje
ArtistCarel Fabritius
Year1654 (1654)
TypeBird painting
MediumOil on panel
SubjectEuropean goldfinch
Dimensions33.5 cm × 22.8 cm (13.2 in × 9.0 in)
LocationMauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands

The Goldfinch (Dutch: Het puttertje) is a painting of a life-size chained goldfinch by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius, signed and dated 1654, that is now in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. It is a trompe-l'œil oil on panel measuring 33.5 by 22.8 centimetres (13.2 in × 9.0 in) that was once part of a larger structure, perhaps a window jamb or a protective cover. It is possible that the painting was in its creator's workshop in Delft at the time of the gunpowder explosion that killed him.

A common and colourful bird with a pleasant song, the goldfinch was a popular pet, and it could be taught simple tricks including lifting a thimble-sized bucket of water. It was reputedly a bringer of good health, and it was a subject used in Italian Renaissance painting as a symbol of Christian redemption and the Passion of Jesus.

The painting is unusual for the Dutch Golden Age painting period in the simplicity of its composition and use of illusionary techniques. Following the death of its creator, it was lost for more than two centuries before its rediscovery in Brussels. It plays a central role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and its film adaptation.


Carel Fabritius was born in 1622, as Carel Pietersz, in Middenbeemster in the Dutch Republic. Initially he worked as a carpenter. His father and his brothers Barent and Johannes were painters and, although not formally trained in art, Fabritius' ability gained him a place at Rembrandt's studio in Amsterdam.[1] The move to Amsterdam took place in 1641, the same year that Fabritius married his first wife, who came from a well-to-do family.[2] Following her death in 1643, he moved back to Middenbeemster until the early 1650s, then moving to Delft, where he joined the Guild of Saint Luke in 1652.[3]

Fabritius died aged just 32, caught in the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine on October 12, 1654, which destroyed a quarter of the city,[4] along with his studio and many of his paintings. Few of his works are known to have survived.[5] According to his biographer, Arnold Houbraken, Fabritius' student, Mattias Spoors, and church deacon Simon Decker also died as a result of the explosion, since the three were working together on a painting at the time.[5] The Goldfinch was painted in the year that Fabritius died.[6]

Fabritius' works were well regarded by his contemporaries,[7] and his style influenced other notable Dutch painters of the period, including Pieter de Hooch, Emanuel de Witte and Johannes Vermeer.[8] Vermeer, who also lived in Delft, in particular used similar pale, worn walls lit by bright sunlight,[9] and it has been suggested that he was Fabritius' student, although there is no real evidence for this.[7]


The painting shows a life-size European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) on top of a feeder, a blue container with a lid, that is enclosed by two wooden half-rings fixed to the wall. The bird is perched on the upper ring, to which its leg is attached by a fine chain.[10][11] The painting is signed and dated "C fabritivs 1654" at the bottom.[12]

The goldfinch is a widespread and common seed-eating bird in Europe, North Africa, and western and central Asia.[13] As a colourful species with a pleasant twittering song, and an associated belief that it brought health and good fortune,[14] it had been domesticated for at least 2000 years.[6] Pliny recorded that it could be taught to do tricks,[6] and in the 17th century, it became fashionable to train goldfinches to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket on a chain. The Dutch title of the painting is the bird's nickname puttertje, which refers to this custom and is a diminutive equivalent to "draw-water", an old Norfolk name for the bird.[14][11]

The goldfinch frequently appears in paintings, not just for its colourful appearance but also for its symbolic meanings. Pliny associated the bird with fertility, and the presence of a giant goldfinch next to a naked couple in The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych by the earlier Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch perhaps refers to this belief.[14]

Nearly 500 Renaissance religious paintings, mainly by Italian artists, show the bird, including da Vinci's Madonna Litta (1490–1491), Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch (1506) and Piero della Francesca's Nativity (1470–1475)[15][a] In Medieval Christianity, the goldfinch's association with health symbolises the Redemption, and its habit of feeding on the seeds of spiky thistles, together with its red face, presaged the crucifixion of Jesus, where the bird supposedly became splattered with blood while attempting to remove the crown of thorns.[6][17] Many of these devotional paintings were created in the second quarter of the fourteenth century while the Black Death pandemic gripped Europe.[15]

The goldfinch in art

Physical characteristics

The Goldfinch is a 33.5 by 22.8 centimetres (13.2 in × 9.0 in) oil painting on panel in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands.[12] Details of its physical structure emerged when it was restored in 2003.[7] Because the lead-based painted limited the effectiveness of traditional X-rays and Infrared, chief conservator Jorgen Wadum used a CT scanner to digitally eliminate the paint layer and see what was underneath.[18][9] The panel on which it is painted is 8–10 millimetres (0.31–0.39 in) thick, which is atypically deep for a small painting, and indicates that it may have formerly been part of a larger piece of wood. Evidence for this is the remains of a wooden pin, suggesting that the original boards had been joined with dowels and glue. Before it was framed, the painting had a 2-centimetre (0.79 in) black border onto which a gilded frame was later fixed with ten equally spaced nails. The nails did not reach the back of the panel so there is no evidence of a backing to the picture. The frame was subsequently removed leaving only a residual line of a greenish copper compound. Fabritius then extended the white background pigment to the right edge, repainted his signature, and added the lower perch. Finally, the remaining black edges were over-painted with white.[7]

The back of the panel has four nail holes and six other holes near the top, suggesting two different methods of suspension of the panel at various times. American art historian Linda Stone-Ferrier has suggested that the panel may have been either attached to the inner jamb of a window or have been a hinged protective cover for another wall-mounted painting.[7]

During conservation, it was realised that the surface of the painting had numerous small dents that must have been formed when the paint was still not fully dried, since there was no cracking. It is possible that the slight damage was caused by the explosion that killed its creator.[19] The restoration removed the old yellow varnish and showed the original tones,[9] described by the French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger in 1859 as mur blême and lumineuse couleur ("pale wall" and "bright colour").[20]


The Goldfinch is a trompe-l'œil painting which uses artistic techniques to create the illusion of depth, notably through foreshortening of the head, but also by highlights on the rings and the bird's foot, and strong shadows on the plastered wall.[3] Bold strokes of bright colours above and lighter touches of duller colours below also accentuate the visual effect.[11] The viewpoint seems to be from slightly below the bird, suggesting that it was intended to be mounted in an elevated position. The lack of a frame initially also suggests that the painting may have been mounted to look realistic, and may have been part of a larger assemblage of illusionary paintings.[7]

Stone-Ferrier's supposition that it may at one time have been part of a window jamb relies in part on the painting giving the illusion of a real perched bird to passers-by, which is consistent with a raised location. She notes the importance of windows as picture settings during the Dutch Golden Age and the use of perspective boxes to create realistic interiors.[7] Fabritius used a perspective box to create depth in other paintings including his A View of Delft.[9]

Fabritius used lead white paint as the base for the cream plaster of the walls, contrasting with the tan shadow of the bird.[7][6] The English art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon considered that the blend of colours in the diffuse shadow forshadowed some of the techniques of the nineteenth-century French Impressionists and Post-Impressionist artists.[2]

The trompe-l'œil technique has been know since ancient times, with Pliny telling the story of Zeuxis painting grapes so real that birds flew down to peck at them, and de' Barbari's A Sparrowhawk is a Renaissance example of a painting that seemed intended to be mounted to create an illusion of reality to people passing the window.[11] Although several of Fabritius' contemporaries, including his master Rembrandt used similar effects, the depiction of a single bird is a minimalist version of the style, and the simplicity of the design combined with the perspective technique in The Goldfinch is unique among paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.[7][3] Fabritius had previously experimented with trompe-l'œil with the realistic nail that appears to be protruding from his 1649 Portrait of Abraham de Potter.[21]

German-Dutch art historian Wilhelm Martin (1876–1954) considered that The Goldfinch could only be compared with the Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets painted by Jacopo de' Barbari in 1504, more than 100 years earlier. The bird itself was created with broad brush strokes, with only minor later corrections to its outline, while details, including the chain, were added with more precision.[3] Fabritius' style differs from Rembrandt's typical chiaroscuro in his use of cool daylight, complex perspective,[8] and dark figures against a light background,[22] although he retains some of his master's techniques such as using the handle end of the brush to scratch lines through thick paint.[9]


middle-aged man in coat
Théophile Thoré-Bürger by Nadar between 1853 and 1869

The Goldfinch was lost for more than two centuries before the previously unknown painting first came to light in 1859. Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who had helped to restore the reputation of Vermeer,[2] found it in the collection of former Dutch army officer and collector Chevalier Joseph-Guillaume-Jean Camberlyn in Brussels. It was subsequently given to Thoré-Bürger by the chevalier's heirs in 1865, and he in turn bequeathed it with the rest of his collection to his companion, Apolline Lacroix, in 1869,[23][24][25][b] three years after its first public exhibition in Paris in 1866.[9]

It was sold to Etienne Haro, a painter, restorer and art dealer,[27] for 5,500 francs at the Hôtel Drouot auction house in Paris on 5 December 1892, and later purchased for the Mauritshuis by its curator and art collector Abraham Bredius for 6,200 francs at the sale of the Émile Martinet collection, also at Hôtel Drouot, on 27 February 1896. [24][28][c] As well as The Goldfinch, Martinet's collection included works attributed to other renowned artists such as Rembrandt, Goya, Steen, and Corot, and La Pythonisse, a work tentatively attributed to Fabritius' brother, Barent.[30]

The painting is now in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague.[12]

In popular culture

The Goldfinch plays a central role in the 2013 eponymous novel by American author Donna Tartt. The novel's protagonist, 13-year-old Theodore "Theo" Decker, survives a terrorist bombing at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in which his mother dies. He takes the Fabritius painting, part of a Dutch Golden Age exhibition, with him as he escapes the building, and much of the rest of the book is based around his attempts to hide the picture, its theft and eventual return.

painting of a girl with a pearl earring
Girl with a Pearl Earring (circa 1665) by Vermeer was part of the 2013–2014 world tour of the Mauritshuis paintings.

The book won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction,[31] and was a commercial success with sales reaching nearly 1.5 million soon after the award.[32] The book's cover is itself a trompe l’oeil, with the painting visible through an illusionary tear in the paper. In reality, the painting has never been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum, although coincidentally an exhibition including The Goldfinch opened at New York's Frick Collection on the day of the novel's publication.[33][34] An estimated 200,000–235,000 people attended the Frick exhibition, despite freezing temperatures,[35][36] and 13,000 people joined the museum, quadrupling its subscription base.[37]

The Frick exhibition was part of a world tour of selected Golden Age paintings from the Mauritshuis closure during a two-year, £25m renovation of the gallery,[36] with previous showings in Tokyo, Kobe, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York, and finishing with a visit to Bologna.[38] The Tokyo exhibition was attended by a million people,[37] making it the most visited such event of the year.[39] Prior to the publicity from the release of Donna Tartt's novel, Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring had typically been highlighted as the main attraction of the exhibition.[38][40]

Tartt's book was adapted as a 2019 film produced by Warner Bros and Amazon Studios,[41] directed by John Crowley,[42] and starring Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker.[43] The film was poorly received, with review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes giving an approval rating of 24%, and an average score of 4.5/10.[44] Following a poor opening, it was estimated it would lose as much as $50 million for the production companies.[45][46]

Other cultural references to The Goldfinch include American artist Helen Frankenthaler's 1960 abstract expressionist interpretation of the 1654 painting titled the Fabritius Bird,[47] and US poet Morri Creech's 2010 poem "Goldfinch", which includes the line "You stare/ from a modest trompe l’oeil heaven we don’t share".[48]


  1. ^ Brown, Christopher (1981). Carel Fabritius: Complete Edition with a catalogue raisonné. Oxford: Phaidon Press. pp. 15, 18. ISBN 0-7148-2032-6.
  2. ^ a b c Graham-Dixon, Andrew (14 November 2004). "ITP [In the Picture] The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius". Sunday Telegraph. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d Martin, Wilhelm (1936). "De Hollandsche schilderkunst in de zeventiende eeuw: Rembrandt en zijn tijd" [Dutch painting in the seventeenth century: Rembrandt and his times] (in Dutch). Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. Retrieved 11 January 2020.
  4. ^ Chambers, Chris (14 October 2004). "The Day the World Came to an End: the Great Delft Thunderclap of 1654". Radio Netherlands. Retrieved 18 January 2020.
  5. ^ a b Houbraken, Arnold (1721). "De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen" [The Great Theatre of the Dutch Painters] (in Dutch). Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  6. ^ a b c d e Lederer, Roger J (2019). The Art of the Bird: The History of Ornithological Art Through Forty Artists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 15, 21. ISBN 978-0-226-67505-3.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Stone-Ferrier, Linda (2016). "The Engagement of Carel Fabritius' Goldfinch of 1654 with the Dutch Window, a Significant Site of Neighborhood Social Exchange". Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. 8 (1). doi:10.5092/jhna.2016.8.1.5.
  8. ^ a b Montias, John Michael (1991). Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (reprint, illustrated ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-691-00289-7.
  9. ^ a b c d e f "The Goldfinch: A Bird's Eye View". Mauritshuis. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  10. ^ "Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654". Mauritshuis. Retrieved 17 January 2020.
  11. ^ a b c d Liedtke, Walter A; Plomp, Michiel C; Rüger, Axel (2001). Vermeer and the Delft School. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 260–263. ISBN 978-0-300-08848-9.
  12. ^ a b c "Details: Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654". Mauritshuis. Retrieved 11 January 2020.
  13. ^ Snow, David; Perrins, Christopher M, eds. (1998). The Birds of the Western Palearctic concise edition (2 volumes). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 1561–1564. ISBN 978-0-19-854099-1.
  14. ^ a b c Cocker, Mark; Mabey, Richard (2005). Birds Britannica. London: Chatto & Windus. pp. 448–451. ISBN 978-0-7011-6907-7.
  15. ^ a b c Friedmann, Herbert (1946). Symbolic Goldfinch: Its History and Significance in European Devotional Art. New York: Pantheon. pp. 6, 66. OCLC 294483.
  16. ^ "The Goldfinch in Renaissance Art". BirdLife International. 2008. Retrieved 16 January 2020.
  17. ^ Cocker, Mark (2013). Birds and People. London: Jonathan Cape. pp. 500–502. ISBN 978-0-224-08174-0.
  18. ^ Wadum, Jorgen (9 April 2004). "CT scanning". Foundation for Advancement in Conservation. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  19. ^ Noble, Petria (2009). Runia, Epco (ed.). Preserving Our Heritage: Conservation, Restoration and Technical Research in the Mauritshuis. Wolle: Waanders. p. 154. ISBN 978-90-400-8621-2.
  20. ^ Bürger, Théophile (1859). Galerie d'Arenberg à Bruxelles: avec le catalogue complet de la collection. Ve Jules Renouard. p. 29.
  21. ^ "Portrait of Abraham de Potter, Amsterdam Silk Merchant, Carel Fabritius, 1649". Rijksmuseum. Retrieved 30 January 2020.
  22. ^ "Carel Fabritius". The National Gallery. Retrieved 12 January 2020.
  23. ^ "Chevalier Joseph Guillaume Jean Camberlyn (Biographical details)". British Museum. Retrieved 17 January 2020.
  24. ^ a b Jowell, Frances Suzman (2003). "Thoré-Bürger's art collection: "A rather unusual gallery of bric-à-brac". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. 30 (1/2): 54 –119 (61, 68). doi:10.2307/3780951. JSTOR 3780951.
  25. ^ Jowell, Frances Suzman (2001). "From Thoré to Bürger: The image of Dutch art before and after the Musées de la Hollande". Bulletin van Het Rijksmuseum. 49 (1): 43–60. JSTOR 40383198.
  26. ^ Charreire, Magali (2016). "Vermeer à l'Arsenal: la bibliothèque-musée de Paul Lacroix" [Vermeer at the Arsenal: Paul Lacroix's library-museum]. Littératures (in French). 75: 45–56. doi:10.4000/litteratures.668.
  27. ^ "Etienne Haro (Biographical details)". British Museum. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  28. ^ Schneider, Norbert (2003). Still Life. Cologne: Taschen. p. 203. ISBN 978-3-8228-2081-0.
  29. ^ Bredius, Abraham (1939). "Een vroeg werk van Carel Fabritius". Oud Holland (in Dutch). 56: 3–14. JSTOR 42722845.
  30. ^ Société de protection des Alsaciens-Lorrains demeurés Français (1874). Exposition de tableaux, statues et objets d'art au profit de l'Oeuvre des orphelins d'Alsace-Lorraine [Exhibition of paintings, statues and works of art for the benefit of the work of orphans from Alsace-Lorraine] (in French). Paris: Musée du Louvre. p. 56.
  31. ^ "2014 Pulitzer winners in journalism and arts". Associated Press. 14 April 2014. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  32. ^ "Tartt's 'Goldfinch' Doubles Sales Following Pulitzer Win". Publishers Weekly. New York: PWxyz LLC. 24 April 2014. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  33. ^ Revely-Calder, Cal (29 September 2019). "The Goldfinch: how one little overlooked 17th-century painting became a global phenomenon". The Telegraph. London: Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  34. ^ "Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis: October 22, 2013 to January 19, 2014". Frick Collection. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  35. ^ "The Goldfinch". National Galleries Scotland. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  36. ^ a b Brown, Mark (27 Feb 2014). "The Goldfinch and Girl with a Pearl Earring to 'reopen' Mauritshuis gallery". The Guardian. London: Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  37. ^ a b "Blockbusters at the Frick". The New Yorker. New York: Condé Nast. 3 February 2014. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  38. ^ a b Nald, Paola. "Vermeer's Mysterious Girl - Palazzo Fava". Bologna Magazine. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  39. ^ Riley, Betsy (20 June 2013). "Preview of the High's 'Girl with a Pearl' exhibit". Atlanta Magazine. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  40. ^ "Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis". de Young Museum, San Francisco. Retrieved 29 January 2020.
  41. ^ "Amazon Studios, Warner Bros. Teaming on 'The Goldfinch' )". Variety. Variety Media. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  42. ^ Fleming Jr., Mike (July 20, 2016). "'Brooklyn' Helmer John Crowley To Direct Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Novel 'Goldfinch'". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  43. ^ Kroll, Justin (October 4, 2017). "Ansel Elgort Offered Lead Role in 'Goldfinch' Adaptation". Variety. Variety Media. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  44. ^ "The Goldfinch (2019)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  45. ^ Clark, Travis (January 13, 2020). "'The Goldfinch' is the biggest box-office flop of the year". Business Insider. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  46. ^ McClintock, Pamela (September 16, 2019). "'The Goldfinch' Bomb May Lose Up to $50M for Warner Bros., Amazon Studios". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  47. ^ Schudel, Matt (6 April 2003). "Color Her World". Sun-Sentinel. Fort Lauderdale: Tribune Publishing. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
  48. ^ Creech, Morri (June 2010). "Goldfinch". First Things. Retrieved 13 January 2020.


  1. ^ Friedmann listed 486 paintings by 254 artists of whom 214 were Italian.[15] including da Vinci's Madonna Litta (1490–1491), Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch (1506) and Piero della Francesca's Nativity (1470).[16]
  2. ^ Former actress Apolline Lacroix was the wife of his colleague Paul Lacroix, the curator of the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, and lived with Thoré-Bürger for more than a decade until his death.[26]
  3. ^ Bredius purchased it through an art dealer, Franz Kleinberger. Ik liet Kleinburger op de veiling bieden... de heer zich om, en zegt: "nu zou ik well eens willen weten, wie de kooper is!" "C'est moi", luidde het antwoord.[29]

Selected bibliography

  • Cornelis, Bart (1995). "A Reassessment of Arnold Houbraken's "Groote schouburgh"". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. 23 (2/3): 163–180. doi:10.2307/3780827. JSTOR 3780827.
  • Davis, Deborah (2014). Fabritius and the Goldfinch. New York: Plympton. ISBN 978-1-68360-049-7.
  • Tartt, Donna (2013). The Goldfinch. New York: Little, Brown. ISBN 978-1-4087-0495-0.

External links

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