The Goldfinch

  • 4th November − 18th December 2016 | Scottish National Gallery | Admission free

About the Goldfinch

The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654, is one of the most beautiful and mysterious paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. It has never been shown in Scotland before and has been generously lent by the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

The picture

At the time Fabritius painted this ‘portrait’ of a goldfinch, these little birds were popular pets. They were renowned for their colourful plumage, delightful song, and their ability to learn tricks, such as drawing water from a bowl with a tiny bucket (hence the Dutch title ‘Het Puttertje’ – ‘the little water-drawer’). In Dutch paintings of the period, goldfinches might be read as a symbol of resourcefulness and dexterity, or even of captive love. Fabritius’s isolated depiction of the bird falls outside such traditions, and its meaning is more elusive. Here there is just a single living bird (as opposed to a common still life of dead game) painted with
extraordinary realism, turning its head towards us with its leg attached to a wooden perch by a slender metal chain.

The Goldfinch (framed), Carel Fabritius 1654 Mauritshuis, The Hague

If the image itself is unique in the art of the period, the original function of The Goldfinch is also shrouded in mystery. It has been speculated that the painting was intended as a shop sign (for which it is far too small and unsuitable), part of a piece of furniture or a cover for a box containing another painting. What seems certain is that Fabritius intended to create a vivid illusion – one that would literally ‘fool the eye’ into reading the image as a living bird rather than its representation (an effect often referred to as trompe l’oeil).

Technical examination has revealed that Fabritius painted the picture in two stages on an unusually thick piece of panel. In the first phase, he painted the feeding box, the bird and the upper perch, and then added the background. This image had a painted black border, approximately 2 cm wide. At this stage, the picture might have been displayed unframed. Fabritius then covered this painted border with a wooden frame. He later removed this, leaving some nails and nail-holes in the panel. Only then did he paint over the background with another coating that imitates a white plastered wall, thus covering most of the painted black border (see illustration). At this point he also added the lower semi-circular perch, which strongly reinforces the trompe l’oeil effect. The low view point, which is emphasised by the second perch, conflicts with the seemingly higher viewpoint of the upper perch and the box lid – an optical ambiguity which Fabritius decided to leave unresolved.

The Goldfinch (unframed), Carel Fabritius 1654 Mauritshuis, The Hague

The artist

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is often seen as the link between the two giants of Dutch painting: Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), in whose Amsterdam studio he worked from 1641 to 1643, and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), who took inspiration from his paintings. An artist of remarkable skill, Fabritius was tragically killed at the age of thirty-two, when a gunpowder store exploded, destroying large parts of the city of Delft and killing hundreds of its residents. It is presumed that much of Fabritius’s work was lost in the explosion. Only around a dozen of his paintings survive; among these, The Goldfinch, which was painted in the year he died, is considered by many to be his masterpiece.

One of Fabritius’s rare drawings, Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well, from the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection, is on display nearby The Goldfinch during its stay in Edinburgh.

Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well, Attributed to Carel Fabritius About 1641-45 Scottish National Gallery

The bird

An adult Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) is readily recognized, with its red, white and black head and yellow wing-bars. The plumage of both sexes is very similar, but the male’s red mask extends slightly back behind the eye. Goldfinches feed predominantly on thistle, teasel and dandelion seeds, which they extract with their long and thin bills. They can be seen all year round in Britain, with the exception of the far North and North-West of Scotland. In the autumn, a proportion of the British breeding population migrates, some birds as far as Spain.

Whilst The Goldfinch is on display at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, visitors will be able to hear the sound of Goldfinch birdsong as they enter!

A Goldfinch