One of the earliest things you learn about at art school, is trompe l’œil, a favourite of teachers and students alike it is a celebrated demonstration of artistic talent. Besides, students love the chance to be cheeky. “Rembrandt’s students are reputed to have played a cruel joke on the great master when they painted some highly realistic gold coins on the floor of his studio. The great master was forever poor and much in need of funds, and so his pupils hoped to trick him into scrabbling around on his hands and knees trying to pick them up” 1. As mentioned in a previous article, the illusion of having drapery or a curtain partially covering a work is a time-honoured favourite of many artists. The Dutch Golden Age is a treasure trove of trompe l’oeil curtains, but the tradition dates back through a boom in early Christian artwork, but the origin story is given to us of course, from Ancient Greece, wherein two skilled artists submitted a painting in competition. “Zeuxis produced a magnificent still life, which featured grapes that were so lifelike that a bird flew down to peck at one. Not a bad result. However, Zeuxis unwittingly and by implication admitted defeat when he turned to his rival Parrhasius and asked him to draw back the curtain of from of his own painting in order to reveal its subject in its entirety” 2.
“Escaping Criticism” by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874
So in my early art student days I too was enamoured with the illusion and trickery of a trompe l’œil, admiring above all the proficiency of the craftsman to create something in two dimensions which your eye believes is three. Creating, through skill, a challenge of our senses and our perception of the world. There are many fantastic examples of trompe l’œil throughout the ages, one of the most beloved being Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874. However, the example given to me, which sparked a great passion in my heart, and of which I had the utmost privilege of beholding in person recently, The Goldfinch (Carel Fabritius), 1654.
The Goldfinch (Carel Fabritius), 1654.
When the Maruritshuis was under renovation during my first trip to Holland, I was so disappointed to have missed the opportunity to view some really wonderful artwork. When I returned home I found out that a “treasures” collection had traveled to North America and I considered making the 10 hour drive to get a peek at the collection when it arrived at the Frick. My patience was rewarded last fall, however when I went back to view the entire collection at the newly opened Mauritshuis in the Hague.
On a quick sidenote, I always love looking for digital images of paintings. Ideally you can find an extremely high res version supplied online by the museum, but sometimes it’s quite hillarious to do a google image search. For very famous paintings, you will find all sorts of stuff showing up. For example, if you google image search the Mona Lisa you will find a great number of hillarious chops. But when you search for a small painting which is fairly unknown to the public but much beloved by art aficionados, this is what you get. Zillions of copies of the same image, uninterrupted. All with slightly varying levels of colour and contrast, depending on who took the picture and what they did to it.
Spot the difference!
The Goldfinch is a small painting. It’s only 13.2 by 9.0 in (33.5 by 22.8 cm) but I hesitate to refer to it as very small, in context. It is painted on very thick board, which is speculated to have been part of a cupboard door or panel 3. It displays a goldfinch, atop a wall perch, its captivity evident by the thin chain which attaches it. “In the 17th century, goldfinches were popular pets because they could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this custom and translates literally as ‘little weller’” 4.
Self Portrait (Carel Fabritius), 1645
Fabritius leaves very few paintings to us, perhaps only a dozen. He died young, perishing along with most of his paintings in a magazine explosion 5. However a very distinct personal style was carved out in his few years, the few remaining paintings marked with simple beauty in quiet and solitary moments, beautifully presented in impressive perspective and wonderful palette. Fabritius can be considered the stylistic connection between Rembrandt, his master, and Vermeer, his pupil. Fabritius experimented with perspective and lighting, both expertly executed in the Goldfinch. Though the majority of Rembrandt’s pupils emulated his style, Fabritius was interested in delicately lit subjects with bright, warm backgrounds, while retaining the gestural brushwork of his subjects. The uniqueness of Fabritius’ style which in turn inspired Vermeer is his honest and unembellished observation of the world around him, giving faithful devoted attention to the lighting and feeling of the scene. “Moving away from the Renaissance focus on iconography, Fabritius became interested in the technical aspects of painting. His personal style is “marked by an exquisite feeling for cool colour harmonies and (even though he often worked on a small scale) unerring handling of a loaded brush” 6. “He painted the goldfinch with visible brush strokes. The wing he indicated with thick yellow paint, where he put in with the back of his brush a scratch” 7.
get back! I’ve got a fully loaded brush!
Fabritius also experimented with spatial effects and forced perspective. A major goal of Dutch paintings at the time, especially those to be hung in homes for personal use, was to blend with the room. We can imagine the work hanging on the wall, or perhaps inlaid into a cabinet door, hearkening at the simple homely visual of the captive pet, the thick paint vibrating with intensity in emulation of the birds little heart, the glint of light off its round eye, and streak of black and yellow a familiar visual cue. The gestural application of the paint and the commonality of the subject matter gives the viewer the impression the painting hanging on the wall is instead a glimpse of the real thing. Like the wall calendar by the phone in the kitchen, it’s a familiar and homely element, something we are used to seeing out of the corner of our eye without taking time to observe it closely.
1, 2 Green, Malcom. “Book of Lies” London: Essential Works, 2005.
3 Frederik J. Duparc, “Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) His Life and Work” in Carel Fabritius 1622-1654, Zwolle, 2004.