I had an hour of spare time in Edinburgh last week, and dived into the Scottish National Gallery, conveniently positioned just five minutes from Waverley station. There is plenty in the permanent collections to make this a worthwhile diversion but, today, and totally unexpectedly, I was in for a particular, treat, as Carel Fabritus’ The Goldfinch was on display, loaned from the Mauritshuis in The Hague. It is a tiny picture – measuring just 33.5 by 23 cm – but it is a wonderful little canvas, depicting – as the name suggests –a lifesize goldfinch, one of the most regular visitors to our bird table here in Bowburn.
My interest in Dutch painting occasionally spills over into this blog (see “How to paint like Vermeer” and “A wet afternoon in Berlin”) and Fabritus plays a small but important role in the story of the Dutch Golden Age, being a pupil of Rembrandt but also, possibly, a mentor to Vermeer himself. He provides the elusive link between these two great masters (though the link with Vermeer is only circumstantial). He was killed at the young age of 32 just after this picture was painted, when a magazine of gunpowder exploded in the city of Delft where he lived. Looking at the picture – which is, in effect, a trompe d’oeil – the similarities to Vermeer become apparent: the modest subject matter, the attention to detail and, in particular, the realistic treatment of light and shadow. The tiny picture draws the viewer into its world and, in Edinburgh, it completely overshadows the much larger works that surround it including, ironically, one by Vermeer himself.
My last encounter with The Goldfinch was via the printed word: Donna Tartt uses an encounter with this picture (on loan to the Met in New York in her treatment) as a plot device in her novel The Goldfinch. It thus joins Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring in the exclusive club of novels named after great Dutch paintings. That has got me thinking … what other novels have Dutch paintings as their titles? Send me your suggestions …
A rare excursion behind a telephoto lens: a goldfinch photographed in our garden, May 2016.