The Masterworks of Carel Fabritius

From the lecture series: Dutch Masters—The Age of Rembrandt

The city of Delft played a crucial locale in Dutch history, commerce, and art. It was the citadel of William of Orange, who was assassinated and buried there. The best-known artist in Delft before Johannes Vermeer was Carel Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt, whose tiny work The Goldfinch is among the most loved of Dutch paintings.

By William Kloss, Independent Art Historian
'A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall' by Carel Fabritius.
A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall by Carel Fabritius. This work is extremely unusual for its dramatic distortion of perspective. Art historians believe that it may have been intended to be displayed on a cylindrical surface.
(Image: Carel Fabritius/Public domain)

Fabritius was born in 1622 in a small town a short distance north of Amsterdam. After studying with Rembrandt, he moved in 1650 to Delft, where he had an immediate impact on the art there. Why Delft suddenly responded to advanced currents in Dutch art at mid-century is difficult to explain. But Fabritius became an essential part of that change. It is widely accepted that his art and technique influenced the young Vermeer.

Learn more about art in Delft

A Single Bird Deceives the Eye

'The Goldfinch' by Carel Fabritius
‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius (click to enlarge) (Image: Carel Fabritius/Public domain)

One of the most well-known paintings by Fabritius is The Goldfinch, painted in 1654. Located in The Hague in the Mauritshuis, out of all proportion to its size or its greatness, this painting has become one of the best-loved works of Dutch art. The painting’s appeal is that it’s both strikingly illusionistic and by the nature of its subject, immediately accessible. It was painted as a trompe l’oeil, an illusionistic device that in French means, “deceive the eye.”

In theory, living subjects have no place in trompe l’oeil painting, since they tend to move. Their lack of movement in a painting, no matter how realistic, contradicts the illusion of life. But The Goldfinch has been admitted into this category because Fabritius cleverly mitigated that problem. He did this by painting it from a low point of view. The effect is best seen when it is hung high on the wall to accommodate that perspective. The background is both colored and textured like a wall to sustain the illusion that the scene is real to blend into its environment. To further support the illusion, Fabritius painted the shadows to be consistent with a light source from the left and in front; this also dictates where the painting is meant to be displayed. Regarding its subject, small birds are often observed to hold a pose for a considerable time. Finally, the free, painterly description of the bird’s feathers is suggestive of reality.

This is a transcript from the video series Dutch Masters: The Age of Rembrandt. Watch it now, on the Great Courses Plus.

Blurred Motion

This last point is important. To see this painting up close, as you usually would in a museum, the brushstrokes are so obvious that the illusion of life is lost to the viewer. The fault is not the painter’s, but in the placement of the painting; it was intended to be mounted in a spot appropriate to a pet bird.

Fabritius did not paint the bird in close detail, which at first seems surprising. His intention wasn’t the descriptive realism of a naturalist, but rather he wanted the quick deception that works better when an instantaneous illusion is desired.

By generalizing and softening his brushwork, he achieves both tactility and a slight sense of motion that just occurred and appears as a slight blur. The fact that the bird doesn’t move any further is in accord with the habits of birds being observed.

Learn more about art and society in 16th-Century Netherlands

Sleeping on the Job

Painting "The Sleeping Sentinel" by Carel Fabritius
‘The Sleeping Sentinel’ by Carel Fabritius (click to enlarge) (Image: Carel Fabritius/Public domain)

Fabritius also painted The Sleeping Sentinel in 1654, housed in the Staatliches Museum in Schwerin, Germany. The theme seems humorous, but the setting is puzzling. An old column has been incorporated into a wall, and behind it is a low arch with a raised portcullis; above the arch, there’s a cropped bas relief on the wall. On the upper right of the picture, stairs descend and end at the top of a dark doorway. A strong contrast is made between this slouching soldier and the very alert dog in a triangle.

Learn more about Dutch Portraits, c. 1635–75

The sculpture above is identifiable as St. Anthony Abbot and his pig, which together symbolize triumph over temptation, while the soldier has failed in his duty of protecting the city. There’s no accident in that juxtaposition.

self portrait by Carel Fabritius
‘Self Portrait’ by Carel Fabritius (Image: Carel Fabritius/Public domain)

The moral of the painting assumes an ironic significance. An accidental explosion of the city’s gunpowder magazine leveled much of Delft in 1654, not long after this painting was finished. Because Delft was a fortified, walled city during the war for independence and the headquarters of William the Silent, the powder magazine had been kept inside the city and remained there even after the constant threat of attack had faded.

The accidental explosion that devastated Delft killed Fabritius, among hundreds of fellow citizens. It probably also destroyed many of his paintings, since only about a dozen are now known. The tragic death of this artist when he was 32 is one of the great losses to Dutch painting.

Common Questions About Carel Fabritius

Q: How did Carel Fabritius die?

Carel Fabritius died in a gunpowder explosion that also killed hundreds of other people. The gunpowder was being stored in the city of Delft in case of an attack.

Q: Is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch a true story?

Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, in which a young boy walks off with Fabritius’s famous painting after an explosion in a museum, is not a true story. One parallel between the painting and the story, though, is that Fabritius died in an explosion the same year that he made the painting.

Q: Where is The Goldfinch painting now?

The Goldfinch painting is in the Mauritshuis museum in the Netherlands.

Q: How much is The Goldfinch painting worth?

The Goldfinch painting’s worth is estimated at $300 million today.

This article was updated on September 18, 2019

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