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In a new online exhibition for its popular 1654 Carel Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch,” the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague asks, “What makes this little bird so special?” The Goldfinch, a Bird’s-Eye View explores the history, influences, techniques, and sudden death of the bird’s creator, as well as its recent surge in popularity with Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning 2013 book The Goldfinch.
However, the Dutch museum chronicles how the painting was admired long before its turn in fiction. Combining video, audio, pop-up historical facts, CT scan studies, narration in English and Dutch, and a smooth scrolling platform, The Goldfinch, a Bird’s-Eye View delves deep into the painting’s past. After Fabritius’s death at the age of 32 in the Delft Explosion of 1654, the same year as he made “The Goldfinch,” the Mauritshuis states that the work “first reappeared in 1859, in Brussels.”
One of its first recorded fans was French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who in 1859 described it as “[a] little piece of nothing, but very good.” His quote opens the interactive exhibition, which also explores Fabritius’s connections to his teacher Rembrandt and to artists such as Vermeer, with his use of cool color, and the symbolism of the goldfinch.
Encountering a pet goldfinch like the one chained in Fabritius’s trompe l’oeil would not have been unusual in the 17th century, when the birds were prized for their chirping songs and cleverness. Their name in Dutch — puttertjes, or “little water drawers” — refers to their trick of drawing their own water by pulling up a small bucket or thimble.
Goldfinches also had a spiritual significance when they appeared in art. As the story goes, one pulled a thorn from the crown of Jesus on the cross, the sprayed blood staining its face red for the rest of time. The Goldfinch, a Bird’s-Eye View is full of such illuminating tidbits. For a painting that has been at the Mauritshuis since 1896, and has traveled so extensively around the world — both in the flesh and through fiction — the online exhibition offers a rich look at the many sides of a familiar work of art.
The Goldfinch, a Bird’s-Eye View is available to explore online from the Mauritshuis.