Carel Pietersz Fabritius

Carel Pietersz Fabritius (Flemish). 1622-1654. The Goldfinch


Fabritius’ father taught school, entered parenthood at 22 and later became a painter. Following in his father’s footsteps, Fabritius married at the age of 19 and became a master carpenter and painter. The family name may in fact have come from the Latin faber, meaning artist or craftsman. A precocious artist, Fabritius moved to Amsterdam to work with Rembrandt in 1641 and is considered to be one of Rembrandt’s best students. Even though Fabritius had no previous art training, his father and three of his brothers were painters, so he had considerable exposure to the craft. Fabritius worked in Rembrandt’s studio until 1650, after his wife and two children died, then moved to Delft, the home of Vermeer. Fabritius might have been a link between Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Fabritius painted a variety of pictures, mostly portrait types. There is one entitled Dead Duck but little is known about that painting. His most famous picture was one entitled The Goldfinch, painted in 1654, the year he died. The European Goldfinch is a small songbird native to Europe, North Africa and western Asia. The bird has a red face, a black-and-white head, black wings crossed with yellow, a black tail and white rump. All these colors contrast with the creamy tan wall in the picture.

         In the painting the bird sits on top of its cage, secured by a thin chain. Goldfinches have long been domesticated; 2000 years ago Pliny mentioned their ability to perform tricks. In the 17th century it was popular to capture goldfinches and teach them various tricks. In the wild, the birds hold thistles with their feet as they extract seeds, an ability exploited by their human stewards. The birds would be tethered by a chain to their nest/food box and trained to pull up a chain or string to which was attached a bucket filled with seeds or water. The Dutch title of the painting, Het puttertje, means “the weller.”

It seems that the goldfinch appearing in pictures of the Madonna and Christ child, such as Madonna of the Goldfinch, by Rafael about 1506, is predicting the crucifixion. The goldfinch is associated with the Passion and Christ's Crown of Thorns because the bird feeds among thorns that encircle Jesus’ head, the bird’s red face coming from Jesus’ blood. At least 486 devotional pictures containing the goldfinch were created during the Renaissance, with the bird almost always in the hands of the Christ child.

What is unusual about Fabritius’ painting, The Goldfinch, is that it is a portrait of one bird. Not as background or as one of a group of live or dead birds, but a focus on one special bird. The painting resides in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

Fabritius tragically died young in an explosion in a gunpowder storage facility in Delft in 1654 at the age of 32. It is likely that most of his works died with him, which is why only about a dozen of his paintings remain, and why he is relatively unknown.