Fabritius, Carel: The Goldfinch (1654)

The Independent's Great Art series

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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.