Vermeer’s ‘Little Street’ Discovered!

Vermeer’s ‘Little Street’ Discovered!

It’s one of my favourite paintings. A view of ordinary houses in an ordinary street, the weathered brickwork, window leads and wooden shutters finely detailed, and a few incidental details of everyday life – two children at play, a woman sewing in a doorway, while another is glimpsed in a side passage reaching into a barrel.

In Amsterdam on my way back from the Bosch exhibition in ‘s-Hertogenbosch last month, losing my way in the Rijksmuseum, I chanced upon it in a distant side-room where it was the centrepiece of a small but fascinating exhibit: Vermeer’s Little Street Discovered! Continue reading “Vermeer’s ‘Little Street’ Discovered!”

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

Yesterday I wrote about the connection between Donna Tartt’s new novel and the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch.  That set me thinking about why Fabritius had chosen the bird as a subject for a painting, so I thought I’d consult the book I received as a birthday present recently: Birds and People by Mark Cocker.

What I found there proved to be fascinating.  In a sense, Carel Fabritius was following a well-established tradition of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance of featuring a goldfinch in paintings, especially images of the Madonna and holy child.  What mattered for these artists was not the accuracy of natural history but the bird’s symbolic or allegorical meaning.  Cocker reckons that close on 500 paintings in this period included the goldfinch motif.  In the case of the Madonna images, the bird often occupied a central place in the composition, perched on Mary’s fingers or nestled in Christ’s hands.

Taddeo di Bartolo Sienna , Virgin and Child, 13C

Detail from Taddeo di Bartolo’s ‘Virgin and Child’,14th century

Virgin and Child, Florence, 13 or 14C

‘Virgin and Child’, Florence, 14th century.

So what was it about the goldfinch that warranted its inclusion in hundreds of paintings?  The answer lies in the bird’s plumage and lifestyle, which had produced in the medieval mind powerful symbolic associations. Cocker quotes the scholar Herbert Friedmann who wrote in The Symbolic Goldfinch (1946) of the ‘ceaseless sweep of allegory through men’s minds.  They felt and thought and dreamed in allegories’.

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, detail

Detail from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymous Bosch, c1510: rampant allegory featuring an outsize goldfinch.

What did the individual feel, then, when they saw an image of a goldfinch? First, there was the bar of gold across the bird’s wings, a colour which, since the ancient Greeks, had been associated with the ability to cure sickness.  Then there was the splash of red on the cheeks: as with the robin’s red breast this was a sign to medieval Christians that the bird had acquired blood-coloured feathers while attempting to remove the crown of thorns from while Christ was being crucified.

Finally, not only did thistles have a symbolic association with the crucifixion: thistle seeds are the staple food of the European goldfinch, and thistles were themselves regarded as curative (long credited, for example, as a medicinal ingredient to combat the plague).

John Clare, always observant of bird behaviour, noted the goldfinch’s preference for thistles in his poem, ‘The Redcap’ (an old country name for the bird):

The redcap is a painted bird
and beautiful its feathers are;
In early spring its voice is heard
While searching thistles brown and bare;
It makes a nest of mosses grey
And lines it round with thistle-down;
Five small pale spotted eggs they lay
In places never far from town

(Indeed, goldfinches often come to our bird table here in Liverpool.)

Through its association with thistles, the goldfinch came to be seen as a good-luck charm, ‘warding off contagion and bestowing symbolic health both upon those who viewed it and upon the person who owned it’.  Thus the goldfinch came to be a symbol of endurance and, in the case of paintings of the Madonna and child this symbolism was transferred to the Christ child, an allegory of the salvation Christ would bring through his sacrifice.

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, 1480

Carlo Crivelli, ‘Madonna and Child’, 1480

In the Venetian artist Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child, apples and a phallic and misshapen cucumber symbolise sin and a fly evil; they are opposed to the goldfinch, symbol of redemption from the belief that when Christ was crucified, a goldfinch perched on his head and began to extract thorns from the crown that soldiers had placed there.

Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino Madonna of the Goldfinch detail

Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’).

In Birds and People, Mark Cocker makes a broader point: that the story of the goldfinch in late medieval art is an indication of how our views of nature have changed.  Until relatively recently most people ‘genuinely thought birds existed to fulfil very specific human ends’.  He quotes one 18th century author as asserting: ‘Singing birds were undoubtedly designed by the Great Author of Nature on purpose to entertain and delight mankind’.

Which, in a way, brings us back to Fabritius’s goldfinch.  Cocker describes the goldfinch as ‘thrice-cursed as a cagebird’: once by its beauty, then by its pleasant song, described by one writer as ‘more expressive of the joy of living than of challenge to rivals’, and finally by its dextrous coordination of bill and feet.  In order to feed off thistle heads, the goldfinch has developed the ability to hold down an object with its toes while pulling parts towards them.

Fabritius, The Goldfinch,1654

Carel Fabritius’s ‘Goldfinch’,1654: ‘thrice-cursed’.

It was precisely these three ‘curses’ that resulted in the predicament of the bird in Fabritius’s painting.  Finches like the chaffinch and goldfinch were highly valued as cagebirds for their melodious song, but goldfinches brought something more: they became  popular house pets in Holland, kept in captivity attached to a chain and trained to perform the trick of drawing water from a glass placed below the perch by lowering a thimble-sized cup into the glass.

It’s not beyond the bounds of probability that Fabritius, making this painting six years after the United Provinces had gained their independence from Spain, also expected his viewers to read his work as an allegory of freedom chained.  In this sense, the painting shares an emotional character with Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Caged Goldfinch’:

Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.

There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.

A few decades after Hardy, Osip Mandelstam, in ‘The Cage’ written after Stalin had ordered his arrest and internal exile in Voronezh from 1935 to 1937, summoned the goldfinch to symbolize his yearning for freedom and self-expression and rage at being caged within ‘a hundred bars of lies’:

When the goldfinch like rising dough
suddenly moves, as a heart throbs,
anger peppers its clever cloak
and its nightcap blackens with rage.

The cage is a hundred bars of lies
the perch and little plank are slanderous.
Everything in the world is inside out,
and there is the Salamanca forest
for disobedient, clever birds.

There’s another goldfinch poem by Thomas Hardy – ‘The Blinded Bird’ – that communicates the same sense of rage at freedom denied, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’:

So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!

Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!

Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.

Hardy – who was an antivivisectionist and founder-member of the RSPCA – wrote the poem as a protest against the Flemish practice of Vinkensport in which finches are made to compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour. In preparation for the contests, birds would be blinded with hot needles in order to reduce visual distractions and encourage them to sing more. In 1920, after a campaign by blind World War I veterans supported by Hardy the practice was banned.  Vinkensport – considered part of traditional Flemish culture – continues today, though the birds are now kept in small wooden boxes that let air in but keep distractions out.

Writing this now brings back the memory of standing in a narrow street in Naples this spring, echoing with the roar of motorcycles and the shouts of people passing.  Above the din, I heard a bird sing. Opposite, a tenement rose up, balconies draped with the morning’s washing, and on a fourth floor balcony, my eyes found the bird that sang.  Some kind of finch, it was trapped in a cage no more than twice its size.  I wrote about that experience back in April, and of the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar that gave Maya Angelou the title of the first volume of her autobiography:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Leonardo, Madonna Litta detail

Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Madonna Litta’, detail

Maybe Hardy had read Leonardo da Vinci’s words on the goldfinch:

The gold-finch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all his sickness.

Like unto this is the love of virtue. It never looks at any vile or base thing, but rather clings always to pure and virtuous things and takes up its abode in a noble heart; as the birds do in green woods on flowery branches. And this Love shows itself more in adversity than in prosperity; as light does, which shines most where the place is darkest.

Ted Hughes celebrated the twitching, thrilling vitality of goldfinches in their free element in ‘The Laburnum Top’:

The Laburnum Top is silent, quite still
in the afternoon yellow September sunlight,
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen

Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddeness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

And the laburnum subsides to empty

Simon Armitage, in The Poetry of Birds, wonders why poets have written so many poems about birds. ‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level,’ he writes, ‘birds are also our souls’. He continues:

Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.

Reviewing Donna Tartt’s novel in today’s Guardian, Kamila Shamsie writes that at the conclusion of the book she leads her readers to a place of meaning: in her words, ‘a rainbow edge … where all art exists, and all magic. And … all love.’

Henriette Browne, A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch, 1870

Henriette Browne, ‘A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch’, 1870: freedom to fly

See also

The Goldfinch: ‘anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’

<em>The Goldfinch:</em> ‘anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’

Fabritius, The Goldfinch,1654

In her interview with Kirsty Wark on BBC 4 this week, Donna Tartt told how seeing a small painting by the 17th century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius at the Mauritshuis in The Hague sowed a seed twenty years ago that led to her new novel, The Goldfinch.  My ears pricked up at this because I had come face to face with the first Fabritius painting I had seen in the flesh in London this summer – a remarkable wide-screen view of Delft in 1652.

Donna Tartt’s account of standing transfixed before Fabritius’s small painting of a finch bound to its perch by a thin silver chain intrigued me: I hadn’t seen the painting and wasn’t aware of Fabritius’s own tragic story.

Carel Fabritius, Self portrait,1650
Carel Fabritius, Self portrait,1650

Carel Fabritius was Rembrandt’s most outstanding pupil, a brilliant experimental artist whose reputation rests on a handful of surviving paintings. Between 1641 and 1643 Fabritius worked in Rembrandt’s workshop in Amsterdam. His earliest known painting The Raising of Lazarus reveals his careful study of his master’s The Night Watch. In 1650, Fabritius moved to Delft, where four years later his short life ended tragically.  He died in the massive explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine on 12 October 1654, which destroyed a quarter of the city, along with his studio and many of his paintings. Barely a dozen paintings by him have survived.

Tartt’s Goldfinch opens with catastrophe: an explosion at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where 13-year-old Theo Decker and his mother are looking at an exhibition of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. She is killed in the disaster, and her last words to her son reflect another event that troubled Tartt and informed her novel – the destruction of the great Buddhas at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban.  As she breathes her last, Theo’s mother says, ‘I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’; and a mortally wounded old man entrusts Theo with a canvas: Fabritius’s The Goldfinch.

Egbert van der Poel, View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654
Egbert van der Poel, View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654

In Dirck van Bleyswijck’s Description of the City of Delft, published in 1667 there is a poem written by Arnold Bon to the memory of Carel Fabritius:

Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,
In the midstand at the height of his powers,
But happily there arose out of the fire
Vermeer, who masterfully trod in his path.

This alludes to the idea that Fabritius was a link between Rembrandt and Vermeer – he was certainly a student of Rembrandt, and although he may not have actually taught Vermeer, as some have suggested, Vermeer undoubtedly learned from Fabritius’s technical skill in handling perspective and naturalistic colouring.

Fabritius was, by all accounts and from the limited evidence of his surviving work, ‘at the height of his powers’ when, on Monday, 12 October, 1654, shortly after half past eleven in the morning, one of Delft’s gunpowder stores exploded and destroyed a large part of the city. The painting (above) by van der Poel shows the terrible damage caused by the explosion. In the distance against the horizon the two major churches of the city, the Oude and the Niewe Kerk, stand relatively intact. To the right of the picture is the area where the gunpowder had been stored; all that remains are a crater filled with water, some burnt trees, roofless houses, and piles of rubble. In the foreground, people are busy helping the wounded and comforting one another. Two men crossing a bridge on the left of the picture carry a basket containing the few belongings they have managed to salvage.

When the store exploded, it contained about 90,000 pounds of gunpowder. Although the number of people killed is not known, estimates suggest that there must have been hundreds of deaths.  Fabritius died in his own home along with his mother-in-law and brother-in-law, his pupil Mathias Spoors, and a former sexton of the Oude Kerk whose portrait he was painting.  Their bodies lay in the rubble for seven hours before being pulled free by fellow citizens.  Fabritius was still alive, but on the way to the hospital, in the words of Dirck van Bleyswijck’s account, ‘his oppressed soul departed his terribly beaten body at the age of but thirty years’.

Carel Fabritius, Young Man in a Fur Cap, self-portrait,1654
Carel Fabritius, Young Man in a Fur Cap (self-portrait), 1654

When he died, Fabritius had lived in Delft for only a short time, yet art historians reckon he had an enduring impact on a great influence on the local school of painters, especially on de Hooch and Vermeer. From having been Rembrandt’s most gifted pupil, Fabritius went on to forge his own identity as an artist, developing new ways of handling space and perspective and gaining a reputation as a brilliant experimental artist, interested in perspective and illusionism. Contemporary sources say that he made perspective boxes, sometimes called peepshows – optical devices which enabled an artist to create a convincing illusion of interior (or, as in the case of View of Delft with Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall, 1652) exterior space.

Fabritius, View of Delft with Musical Instrument Seller's Stall, 1652
Carel Fabritius, View of Delft with Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall, 1652

View of Delft is not only the first painted townscape of Delft, it is also the only surviving example of many illusionist paintings and murals that established his reputation as as a brilliant artist.  The picture was not designed to be viewed the way it is now – as a flat, wide-screen canvas – but curved inside a perspective box, with the left and right edges curved toward the viewer.  The result would have been to represent an actual site with extraordinary verisimilitude – an illusion of actual space.

Only the left hand part of the composition is imaginary.  A man bearing a resemblance to Fabritius himself sits at a table by a weather beaten wall.  A lute leans against the building, casting a shadow on the wall.  A viola da gamba lies on the cloth-covered table.  The instruments and the sign with a swan identify the building as a tavern.  On the right a bridge arches over one of Delft’s canals and the perspective leads the eye past a church and houses which, apparently, still exist today.

Apart from being a triumph of illusion, the painting is also a parable, contrasting worldly and spiritual values (the inn and the musical instruments symbolising transitory pleasures, and the church which offers eternal life).  It’s a theme that is found in many Dutch paintings of this period – including several that were displayed in this summer’s exhibition at the National Gallery, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure.

Fabritius was the son odf a teacher, born in a small town just north of Amsterdam in 1622.  When he and his brother joined the local church in 1641 they were known as ‘Timmerman’, suggesting they worked as carpenters or builders.  That was the year that Carel married the girl next door and, shortly after, moved to Amsterdam, where he became Rembrandt’s pupil.  Fabritius lost his first child in August 1642, and his second a year later.  His wife died in 1643.

When his second marriage, to a widow from Delft, was registered in August 1650 he was recorded as living in her home town.  He joined the Painters’ Guild there in 1652, and in January 1653 moved into the house on Doelenstraat where he was killed in the explosion of 12 October 1654.

Somewhere around the time of his second marriage, Fabritius painted the 1650 self portrait seen above.  Because of its bold execution, colour range and dramatic chiaroscuro – with Fabritius’s facial features thrown into relief by the bright light that falls on his forehead and shadows cast on his face – the painting was once thought to be by Rembrandt.  In Delft, Fabritius was to move away from this early Rembrandtesque style with its thick impasto toward one featuring a smoother finish and subtler, more generalised effects of light and space that would influence Vermeer, as the Encyclopedia Britannica states:

The earliest work definitely attributed to Fabritius, Raising of Lazarus, is still very much in the manner of Rembrandt. But by 1648, when the portrait of Abraham de Potter (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) was painted, Fabritius’s originality and independence of spirit had already asserted itself. Unlike Rembrandt, whose figures characteristically emerge from a dark background and are modelled by the action of light, Fabritius silhouetted his figures against light backgrounds and specialized in depicting the subtlety of daylight effects; in this he influenced both Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer (who is thought to have been his pupil).

The second self portrait from 1654 (now in the National Gallery) depicts Fabritius dressed in a 17th century military breast plate and cap, the costume and pose referring to a tradition established by Rembrandt.   But in this painting Fabritius has abandoned Rembrandt’s tonality and painterly qualities: the paint is more thinly applied, the lighting softer and more subtle.  It’s in paintings like this that art historians see Fabritius paving the way for other Delft painters such as de Hooch and Vermeer with their interest in daylight effects and the expressive possibilities of the depiction of space.

Carel Fabritius, The Sentry. 1654
Carel Fabritius, The Sentry, 1654

Interpretations as to the meaning of The Sentry, also painted in 1654, vary. For some, the soldier hunched over his musket is asleep, while others argue that he is busy cleaning his gun.  Whatever Fabritius intended, this would have been an instantly recognisable scene to his contemporaries: the gates of Dutch towns would be guarded both during the day and at night, when the night watch consisting of members of the town’s civic guard would do their stint whereas the daylight hours were assigned to paid soldiers not necessarily from the town.  So it could be that this is a member of the night watch dozing in the morning sun after being on duty through the night.

Apart from the soldier, this is a study of light, with its balanced contrasts of light and shadow and thin, fluid brush strokes.  Colours and tones have been reduced to browns, greys and black and there is a stark contrast between the soldier’s dark figure and the dazzling sunlight on the wall behind him.

Which brings us back to The Goldfinch, again painted in 1654, just a few months before his untimely death in the Delft powder magazine explosion. Those who have seen the painting speak – as Donna Tartt did in this week’s interview – of it possessing an extraordinary expressive power that is almost entirely lost in reproduction.  Once again, the stark white-washed wall, flooded in light, which surrounds the bird is a break from the usual dark backgrounds that Dutch painters like Rembrandt and Hals conventionally employed to dramatize the foreground figure. This is the one work by Fabritius  with its luminosity and poetic simplicity, that we might surmise may have had a direct impact on the young Vermeer.  This is Andrew Graham-Dixon writing about the painting:

The Goldfinch is not an essay in deep spatial perspective but it is, none the less, a breathtaking example of Fabritius’s gifts as a creator of visual illusions. It is also a picture which encapsulates his tremendous originality, his bold independence from the powerful example of Rembrandt. Whereas most of Rembrandt’s pupils remained in thrall to his chiaroscuro and built their pictures, like his, on the contrast between deep shadow and bright illumination, Fabritius painted colour and form as they are defined by light. He seeks as close an equivalent as he can find, in paint, for the way in which the human field of vision is formed from infinitely subtle gradations of optical stimuli. The painting of the dappled patch of cream-coloured wall against which the goldfinch perches on its stand – recently restored by the Mauritshuis’s exemplary conservator Jorgen Wadum – is a miracle of shadowplay. Accents of light on the semicircular bars of the bird’s perch, on its feet, and on the rings of its metal chain, are created with the thinnest threads of white pigment. The handling of the bird’s plumage is beautifully free. A shadow in the lead-tin yellow feather of its wing has been created by the expedient of dragging the butt end of the brush through the still-wet paint. The mixture of colours in the blurry, fogged shadow cast by the bird on the wall anticipates the light-perceptions, and some of the techniques, of the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters of the nineteenth century.

Fabritius, The Goldfinch,1654
Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch,1654

Goldfinches were popular house pets in Holland, kept in captivity attached to a chain. The painting is also known as Het Puttertje, from the Dutch verb putten, meaning to draw water from a well. Goldfinches acquired the nickname because they were often taught a trick: to draw water from a glass placed below its perch by lowering a thimble-sized cup into the glass.

I haven’t come across a better discussion of the artistry of this painting than that of the late Tom Lubbock, writing in the Independent’s series, Great Art:

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.

I think Donna Tartt may have read that during her research: I learn from a review of the novel that one character explains of the painting, ‘There’s a doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird.’

In The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt has one of her characters say, ‘I was haunted and sickened by the destruction of something that had been at the heart of the world for centuries’.  There are so many examples of artworks destroyed either deliberately or accidentally, for reasons of politics, religion or sheer narrow-mindedness.  Donna Tartt has spoken of the impact that the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan statues by the Taliban and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre made on her during the writing of the novel.  Indeed, a considerable number of artworks were destroyed in the September 11 attacks, including a painting by Roy Lichtenstein and a Joan Miró tapestry.

Iconoclasm – the destruction of works of art for religious or ideological reasons – has caused the loss of countless works through the centuries (there’s an exhibition at Tate Britain currently that gathers examples of British iconoclasm).  There are plenty of examples from the 20th century of the destruction of art for political reasons: Diego Rivera’s mural for the Rockefeller Centre, Man at the Crossroads was destroyed in 1934 because its content (including a portrait of Lenin) offended Nelson Rockefeller, who had commissioned the work; and in the 1930s and 1940s, Nazi Germany destroyed works of art labelled ‘degenerate art’, as well as works created by Jewish artists.  Right now, centuries of Syria’s artistic and cultural heritage have been destroyed in two years of the civil war, with historic sites destroyed and artworks looted.

Truly, we can echo the words of Donna Tartt’s character: ‘anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’.

See also

Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure

Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure

Passing through London on the way to Brussels for a few days that were to be focussed on 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish art, it seemed appropriate to visit the National Gallery to see the current exhibition, Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure.  A little amuse bouche for what was to come, we hoped.  The exhibition is notable for bringing together the National Gallery’s two paintings by Vermeer – A Young Woman standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman seated at a Virginal – with Vermeer’s Guitar Player, currently on loan while Kenwood House is being renovated.

To these three paintings, the National Gallery have added two more by Vermeer – The Music Lesson from the Royal Collection, and a little-seen painting from a private collection in New York, Young Woman seated at a Virginal – alongside a small selection of Dutch genre paintings illustrating the importance of music in 17th-century Netherlands. Continue reading “Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure”