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More Talent Than Luck

January 19, 2014



Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is not nearly as well-known as his famous instructor Rembrandt, which is a shame because Fabritius was arguably Rembrandt’s most talented pupil and someone we’d be better acquainted with if tragedy hadn’t claimed the painter at the age of thirty-two. But I’m getting ahead of the story.


Fabritius was alone among Rembrandt’s students in liberating himself from the master to develop his own artistic style. Rembrandt kept the backgrounds of his portraits plain and dark with the subject defined by spotlighting. In contrast, Fabritius' portraits feature delicately lit subjects against light-colored, textured backgrounds. I’m often amazed at the honesty of Dutch painters when it came to creating self-portraits like this one; Fabritius is not a handsome man and he does nothing to glamorize himself. His work is honest and straightforward, with luminous harmonies based on cool colors.


In the early 1650s Fabritius struck out on his own by moving to the city of Delft, where his work influenced painters such as Vermeer and de Hooch, until tragedy struck.


In an unprecedented lack of judgment, the leaders of Delft decided to store thirty tons of gunpowder and munitions in a former convent in the center of town. The man responsible for guarding this stockpile went to check on it one day, perhaps shuffling his feet and causing a spark of static electricity, and the stockpile exploded. The blast, often called The Deft Thunderclap, occurred on Oct. 12, 1654 and was heard as far away as London. Across the street from the old monastery was the studio of Carel Fabritius, who at that moment was busy working on a portrait commission.


A hundred people were killed in the explosion and a thousand injured. A quarter of the city was destroyed. Providentially, two competing open-air markets in neighboring towns had drawn most of the residents away or the death toll would have been much higher. Unfortunately, Carel Fabritius was not one of the survivors. It was bad enough that he was vaporized by the explosion, along with the unlucky person he was painting at the time, but most of his paintings were also destroyed in the blast, leaving precious few works for us to admire.


One such work is The Goldfinch, exceptional for its minimum use of quick brushstrokes to portray a house pet’s downy body. On a small canvas painted in the last months of the artist’s life, Fabritius created a little bird chained to his feedbox. It is a masterpiece of understatement, with significance not at first apparent. The goldfinch was known to make its nest from thorns; in Western art the goldfinch symbolized the passion of Christ.


We will never know if Fabritius would have out shown Rembrandt, but until that terrible explosion his future appeared promising. Whenever I look into the soulful eyes of this earnest young man I can’t help but wonder what might have been, and how much we all lost to that dreadful blast.    



Amazing story, Steve. I always leave your blog much better informed than I was when I arrived. For that, thanks. :)
By: Scott Cody Park on January 19, 2014
thanks for sharing him with us here.
By: TexWisGirl on January 19, 2014
This is so interesting. I had never heard of this painter but he is indeed very talented. It is terrible that he was killed by the blast, but even more terrible that his work went with him, or most of it. He would be long dead by now, but his work could have lived on. I sometimes think they didn't glamorize themselves because portraits were intended to do something different in those days. There's an interesting portrait of an old Chinese painter on display in London right now, together with a poem. It all dates from several hundred years ago. He says he doesn't care what he looks like, the important thing is that he is wondering if he has lived a virtuous life.
By: Jenny Woolf on January 19, 2014
He does look earnest, doesn't he? Too bad about the explosion. There have been many such munitions explosion tragedies in history. Thanks for introducing his work to me.
By: Lexa Cain on January 19, 2014
I had never heard of him--thanks for this post!!
By: fishducky on January 19, 2014
You are much better than any art teacher I ever had in high school!
By: Pixel Peeper on January 19, 2014
Aside from the historical and artistic slant... he appears to be a ladies man. Pounty and somewhat full lips, curly hair and a hairy chest to boot. None of the ladies commented... hmm. ;-)
By: Daniel LaFrance on January 19, 2014
Perhaps not so handsome, but intriguing looking for certain. It's sad when people who show such promise are taken young.
By: mimi on January 19, 2014
Wow. I think I like his work better than Rembrandt's.
By: Al Penwasser on January 19, 2014
Amazing story and such a sad loss of talent. Isn't Delft where the blue and white dishes originated from as well? I'd never heard this story about the explosion before nor of this artist. Thanks for the lesson.
By: Bouncin Barb on January 19, 2014
Not a handsome man? I find him quite appealing. It's the eyes.
By: Val on January 19, 2014
the comparisons you give of artists's work is very interesting. When things are put in historical perspective it's moe interesting again.
By: red on January 19, 2014
oh my gosh- what I learn from you! Not only about this talented young man, but about the Goldfinch! One of my most favorite little birds! Thanks!
By: Kathe W. on January 19, 2014
Fortunate to have an abundance of artistic talent, but much less fortunate for his life to end so prematurely. Interesting and educational tale, as always.
By: Bryan Jones on January 20, 2014
I have never heard of him and it is a shame so little of his work survived. I thought the same thing as you when I saw his self portrait But then I thought, not knowing what he really looked like, this might be an enhanced version. He really isn't bad looking. .
By: Akansas Patti on January 20, 2014
What a really sad story of an amazing artist Stephen, thank you for sharing.
By: John on January 20, 2014
Ah- those what-if's of life. What a talented man he was~
By: Shelly on January 20, 2014
Thanks for the story . . . you should read "The Goldfinch" the new book by Donna Tartt which features the painting prominently.
By: Tom Sightings on January 20, 2014
It is clear that your passion for art goes way beyond your own talent as a fine artist and into the depths of art history. Your admiration for the stories behind other artists and their work would make you a good art teacher. Have you ever considered that?
By: Hilary on January 20, 2014
I hope it was a very quick death. Out shown? Is that a pun? I think it's outshone, but I like out shown. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on January 20, 2014
Love your art lessons!
By: Cranky on January 20, 2014
Such an interesting story. What a shame that his talent was taken away so tragically and so early in his life. I think that Goldfinch painting is precious. I wonder if the self-portrait was accurate. Do most people really see themselves as they are? I don't think he is unattractive as much as the style of the time..especially the hair is so unbecoming.
By: Cheryl P. on January 20, 2014
This is fascinating. I knew this self-portrait but never knew anything about him. Thanks so much for the art history lesson. I wish you had been one of my professors way back when. I would have absorbed a lot more!
By: Mitchell is Moving on January 21, 2014
wow, what a story. i never knew of this artist before.
By: lime on February 3, 2014

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