Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: simply a good read

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: simply a good read

Donna Tartt, author of 'The Goldfinch'

Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch

I enjoyed reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, remaining gripped throughout its 800-odd pages.  Whether the novel amounted to a great deal more than a thoroughly good read: of that I’m doubtful.  The question only arises because of the serious issues hinted at, but not developed in any significant way, in the novel’s powerful opening chapter, and by the Macguffin at its heart – the precious and exquisite work of art which accompanies the narrator from his childhood bereavement, through teenage dissipation to a chilling endgame in Amsterdam.

Readers had been waiting a long time for a new book from Donna Tartt – eleven years to be precise – so, not surprisingly, The Goldfinch has a bestseller, as well as garnering  much critical acclaim.  In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, called it ‘a glorious Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole’. However, the critical reception hasn’t been wholly rapturous: a review in the London Review of Books described it as a ‘children’s book’ for adults.

It really depends on your expectations.  Having read (and enjoyed) Tartt’s two previous books (The Secret History and The Little Friend), I was not expecting great literature that probed the urgent moral and social of our time.  The Goldfinch, indeed, shares many characteristics of the two earlier novels: situated for at least half its length in a childhood or adolescent milieu, and turning out to be, basically, a superior sort of thriller. Tartt is especially good at getting inside the minds of pre-adult males, and is acutely observant of teenage mores and amoral behaviour.  To that extent, the first two-thirds of The Goldfinch follow the pattern of her earlier books.  In the opening chapter it seems as if it might offer more.

Donna Tartt, 'The Goldfinch'

After a brief prologue in Amsterdam, Tartt begins by rewinding 14 years to the day when Theo, the novel’s narrator, loses his mother when a terrorist bomb explodes as they are visiting  New York’s Metropolitan Museum. This chapter, written in gripping prose, reminded me of the astonishing first chapter of Don de Lillo’s Underworld.  Theo and his mother are in separate rooms when the bomb blast occurs, and the descriptions of Theo regaining consciousness in the wreckage, and trying to find his way out of the ripped-apart museum before returning home, expecting to find his mother there, are brilliantly written.

There’s a sense here that themes of great significance may be unfolding.  No reader could fail to sense some sort of parallel with 9/11.  And when Theo leaves the wreckage of the museum with a painting – one that actually exists in the world, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius – the anticipation grows that Tartt’s novel might resonate with the concerns of a time that has seen the treasures of great cultures destroyed in acts of war and terror. For surely, Tartt means us to recall the explosion, in Delft in October 1654, when a gunpowder arsenal blew up, killing hundreds of people, among them the young painter, Carel Fabritius. Perhaps her intention is that we should meditate on the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamiyan buddhas?

But it’s not to be, despite the fact that, minutes before her death, Theo’s mother tells him as she stands before the painting, ‘Anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’. This may be what irritated some critics: apart from a couple of paragraphs at the end of the novel that feel tacked on, the miraculous survival of Fabritius’s painting in two explosions (one real, one fictitious) matters to Tartt only insofar as it provides the motor for the art-world crime thriller that makes up the final third of the book.

The longest section of the The Goldfinch is one which has led some critics to compare the novel to Dickens’s Great Expectations. A motherless child, Theo is first taken in by the wealthy Manhattan family of a nerdish school friend, presided over by the Miss Haversham-like figure of Mrs Barbour. But, after a few months his estranged alcoholic gambler of a father turns up to whisk him away to a barren suburb of Las Vegas.  There, Theo meets the boy who will become his lifelong friend: Boris, a thieving, drinking, drug-taking teenage Ukrainian who leads Theo into a world of excess.

Along with the opening section, this was for me the best part of the novel.  Theo’s friendship with Boris – the son of a crooked Russian businessman, portrayed in vivid terms by Tartt –  is the backbone of the story.  It is this friendship, not anyone’s devotion to art and its ideals, that saves ‘The Goldfinch’ – and Theo himself.

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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’.

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