On a Closer Look

Carel Fabritius's "The Goldfinch," 1654

Carel Fabritius’s work took me by surprise—I did not think that I would be so entranced by such a small and seemingly flat painting. The other works in the room were larger, more elaborate, with more recognizable names, yet this small, simple piece called out to me. It may have been its contrast to the other paintings that initially drew me in. The Goldfinch seemed to lack the allure that the other works possessed as I watched most people merely approach it for a moment to examine its details, leaving with a sense of disinterest. However, the small bird drew me in. I felt that there was more to the elusive canvas than the lack of crowds was letting on.

Prior to engaging with The Goldfinch, had spent almost forty-five minutes looking intently at the Girl with the Pearl Earring. I found there to be the same “battle of the opposites” between emotions in The Goldfinch as in Vermeer’s famous tronie. The bird has a face—subtle flicks of paint composing a beak and eyes—that is not completely defined. This muddling of the birds main physical attributes did not make it easy for me to identify the emotion Fabritius was indicating. This difficulty is understandable due to the fact that the subject is a bird and not a human, and the resultant call to empathize with a non-human subject. The goldfinch looks to be content, but then I noticed a chain keeping it held fast to its perch, bringing to question the bird’s happiness. All at the same time I could see the bird’s complacency not wanting to escape, but also a sadness that made it weak and unable to fly away. The chain that holds it in place looks so delicate, as if the bird could break free without trouble, which makes it seem that it does not want to be free. I came to realize the emotion that was overpowering me: frustration.

Rather than admiring the beauty and simplicity of the painting I found myself returning to a state of frustration. As I came back to look at it once more I noticed that there always seemed be something that was not quite right, and when I identified one peculiarity, another showed itself. My frustration may come from Fabritius’s intent of trompe-l’oeil. Details such as the unknown point of attachment of the chain, how the metal bars are attached to the wall, and the irregular depth perception all contribute to this painting’s frustrating nature. However, the idea of using trompe-l’oeil for this particular subject intrigued me—I wanted to look more into what Fabritius was getting at.

Fabritius did not make this painting small without reason; there is clear intent behind the size of his work that affects the viewing experience. The goldfinch looks about the size of a real finch and the perch looks to be an accurate size as well—creating a solid foundation for the eye. The background of the canvas is painted to be a wall, and the coloring and texture look strikingly similar to the outside of a simple country home. Then I imagined the extension of the wall, adding on a door and a window. But, did I even have to go that far? Is this also part of the illusion? I think so. The sizing of the bird and perch along with the placement of the painting on the wall make the physical wall the painting is mounted on the extension of the painting. The wall aids in the illusion. If this piece were hung on a wall similar to its yellow coloration, this effect would be even more apparent. Once I came to notice all of Fabritius’s techniques, I was brought back again to the details visible within the painting.

It almost seemed as if Fabritius did not want to create a complete trompe-l’oeil piece—he wanted to bring the viewer to a place of uncertainty and then bring them back to reality. This reality being that this is a painting of a bird. The first notice of this for me came in the bird itself. Although it is painted the correct size and color, it is obvious that it is painted. He does not try to hide this fact. Fabritius’s brushstrokes are defined—they demand attention. If he wanted to succeed in tricking the eye, he would not call so much attention to his techniques. This is also shown in the smudge on the outside of the shadow on the right of the painting. I thought long and hard about this vertical line, subtle yet so demanding, that seems to be intentional, but I could not come to a conclusion of why it is there. I concluded is that it Fabritius’s artistic choice, one which might have been executed by scraping the paint to show the grayish color underneath. Thinking about this brought my mind to the artist’s specific techniques in painting this piece; I visualized him painting it and exactly how he went about it. It was no longer about the illusion of the bird and everything I previously thought because he does not allow for the illusion to be completely executed.

Then there was the flatness of the painting—another aspect of the work that frustrated me. How can there be so much depth and illusion creating a realistic picture in a painting that appears so two dimensional? Most of the ‘depth’ is created by the shadows that are so carefully painted. Without the shadow the painting would be consumed by flatness and lose much of the illusion it produces. The shadow of the bird and the box merge as if they are one being, which again supports the impression that the bird is content in its situation. It was the shadow that added the third dimension and tricked my eye.

I did not think that there would be so much detail in such a simple piece, but as I stood there gazing it began to unravel its secrets to me—the one who stayed behind.  By simply looking at a work of art and letting it speak to you, new meaning emerges. Although it also becomes more confusing upon further contemplation, the painting comes alive.