Fabritius, Carel: The Goldfinch (1654)

The Independent's Great Art series


Also in this article:



About the artist

The biggest put-down of the whole art of painting is to be found in that little classic of English comedy, Augustus Carp Esq, By Himself, the imaginary autobiography of an invincibly smug and priggish low-churchman in Edwardian times. Carp proudly recalls his childhood excursions: "Once a month, thanks to my father's generosity, we would journey to such a place of instructional interest as the Tower of London or Sir John Soane's Museum. We even visited, I remember, the National Gallery of Art, with its remarkable collection of hand-painted pictures. ..."

Hand-painted pictures. What a strange and estranging phrase! Of course the joke is meant to be on Carp himself, vain pedant and baffled philistine. The only interest in these artworks is that they're painted entirely by hand.

But what a superbly pa-tronising name for the Western tradition: a remarkable collection of hand-painted pictures. It makes the great works sound like galleons constructed from matchsticks, pieces of doll's house furniture, something ingenious, elaborate, admirable in its way, but pointlessly laborious and fiddly.

The fictional Carp was prophetic. After the triumph of photography, many real people have seen hand-painting as a weird and unnecessary activity. George Bernard Shaw, propagandising for the camera's impersonal accuracy, spoke of "The curious element of monstrosity which we call the style or mannerism of a painter." And the conceptual artist Victor Burgin has derided the "anachronistic daubing of woven fabrics with coloured mud".

Has technology made hand-painting an anachronism? The debate goes on. But even if the art is not yet redundant, all these estranging descriptions are still true - because painting was always strange. It has a strangeness at its heart. Like any form of visual representation, it consists of making something out of something else. There is a discrepancy between the subject and the medium. There is the world - and there is paint. How you deal with this discrepancy is the game itself.

Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch is a modest image, painted on board. Its dimensions are not far off an A4 sheet of paper. It shows, with cunning realism, an area of plastered wall, slightly discoloured and wrinkled. A feeding box and a couple of hoops are fixed to it, and perched there - its leg is attached to one hoop - is the little bird itself, depicted life-sized.

And life-like? Well, the picture seems to be after an effect of perfect illusion. It uses a standard trompe l'oeil trick. It has, as its background, a flat surface viewed flat-on. Our eyes can easily equate this wall-surface with the flat surface of the picture. Everything that lies in front of this wall seems to be projecting in front of the picture, into real space.

If the picture were hung on a wall, similar to the one it depicts, then the feed-box, the perch, and the stationary life-sized. bird could all be mistaken for three-dimensional things, standing out, casting plausible shadows. In this case, the discrepancy between subject and paint would simply be abolished. The paint would have turned (as far as the eye is concerned) into a bit of the real world.

In this picture that doesn't quite happen. The most basic necessity of an illusionistic image is that, at all costs, you mustn't notice the pigment. You must see the thing depicted, and not the paint it's made of. And on this point The Goldfinch is divided. Fabritius very efficiently sets up a trompe l'oeil trick. And then he undoes it. The goldfinch itself is all too clearly made of paint.

Suppose that, lured into a sense of illusion by the rest of the picture, you finally focus on the bird, expecting to be further deceived, maybe hoping for a climax of realism. You find you're thwarted. Just at this point the picture refuses to be real. It insists, on the contrary, that it is nothing but a mosaic of brushstrokes. Look at the finch's head, analysed into slightly squared patches of colour, and the wedges of pigment that make up its beak. Look at the lightning-flash of gold on its wing. The little creature is all a matter of paint, paint applied and shaped by hand.

The image has changed tack, from seamless illusion to visible translation. Its gleaming wooden hoops might fool the eye. But here it declares itself, explicitly, a hand-painted picture. It demands that you notice its paint and its making, notice the disparity between the subject depicted and the medium which it's depicted in; or rather, notice how the artist has created a tight match between the subject and the medium which still doesn't let you forget that bird and paint are two very different things.

Fabritius effects a perfect truce between reality and paint. Every brushstroke is true; the painting doesn't take off on a career its own. But every brushstroke is, clearly, also a bit of dried paste. By holding a marvellous balance between unerring observation and overt hand-painting, The Goldfinch holds before you the fundamental discrepancy of Western art. How strange that painting's persuasions should come down to a daubing of coloured mud. How remarkable that coloured mud should be capable of such metamorphosis.

About the artist

Carel Fabritius (1622-54) is a "what-if " kind of person, in the Mozart and Keats league. His life was short, his surviving paintings are few, about a dozen, and almost every one of them is a masterpiece. He was Rembrandt's most talented pupil. His cool light and low-key subjects, his highly exact recording of the world, his interest in optical effects, and the fact that he settled in Delft, mean that he has been seen as a bridge between Rembrandt and Vermeer. On October 12, 1654, the Delft arsenal exploded, devastating a quarter of the city, killing the artist, and destroying his studio and much of his work.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...