Face to Face With ‘The Goldfinch,’ the Painting from Donna Tartt’s Novel

Donna Tartt built her latest novel around a 350-year-old portrait of a goldfinch. A visit to the Frick reveals this painting’s astonishingly undimmed power.

Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch is a small painting, roughly 9 x 13 inches, but it holds its own in a room filled with 15 Dutch master works by the likes of Hals, Steen, and Rembrandt. It is a potent little masterpiece.

Earlier this week, I went to see it at the Frick Collection in New York City, where it is on display as part of a traveling exhibition of paintings on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Netherlands. In the hour or so I spent circling the room—with side trips back to the room where the exhibit’s marquee painting, Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, hangs alone—I kept returning to the Fabrituis. His portrait of a songbird chained to a perch couldn’t be simpler, or more compelling. The painting of the bird alone is a master class in technique. Look closely and it’s just a collection of brushstrokes—but exquisitely well-placed brushstrokes, some feathery, some almost slashed in with a master’s confidence. You can count almost every one. Step back a few inches, though, and paint, just like that, becomes a living thing.

At one point three men stood beside me examining the painting. One of them was explaining to the others that finches in Fabritius’s day were kept as pets and taught to do tricks. They could lower a tiny, thimble-sized cup into a glass or pitcher and draw up their own drinking water. Their Dutch nickname, putterje, comes from the verb putten, meaning to draw water from a well.

Almost apologetically, he went on to point out that the European goldfinch is not nearly as bright yellow as the species native to this country. Only the wing of the bird in the painting resembles the coloration of the American variety—a combination of yellow and black blades that in Fabritius’s painting draws the eye and practically explodes out of the otherwise muted tonal palette.

The bird is also found, the man went on to say, on the cover of Donna Tartt’s new novel, also called The Goldfinch. On the dustjacket, the paper appears torn, and the image of the bird’s head and shoulders just peeks through the rip in the paper.

That much I knew already. It was, I admit, what brought me to the exhibition in the first place.

In the novel, a teenager, Theo Decker, accompanies his mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Fabritius painting is on loan. While they are there, a bomb explodes. Theo’s mother is one of the bomb’s victims, and in the chaos that ensues, he picks up the painting and carries it out of the museum. The rest of this very long story tells what happens to Theo and the painting—the longer he hides it, of course, the less able he is to simply return it.

The Goldfinch is an absorbing novel, but one of its most interesting aspects is its consideration of what makes art art, or, more prosaically, what makes art timeless. Why does a 350-year-old painting exert such a hold on a boy?

This is not a question that can be answered merely by looking at a reproduction. I know, I’ve tried. As I write this, I’m staring at a postcard reproduction of the painting, and its artistry is plain as day. No, the difference between the postcard and the real thing is immeasurable. I know, because I went to the Frick to see for myself.

For one thing, size matters. The bird in the painting is actual size. If you saw the painting hung high on the wall, as the painter intended, the size of the bird and the angle of its two perches might easily persuade your eye that it was seeing a real goldfinch.

So part of the painting’s spell has to do with deception. It’s an elaborate trompe l’oeil trick. But trickery is only part of the answer.

There is something intense, almost magnetic, about this image, something lost in reproduction but completely obvious when you stand before the real thing. The painting, packed mysteriously with a kind of coiled energy, is itself a little like a bomb about to go off.

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At the very end of The Goldfinch, Theo, now an adult, looks back on all that happened to him since the explosion, since his fate and that of Fabritius’s painting were joined. As much as he would like to believe otherwise, he says, “I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

Standing before the Fabritius painting, feeling it tug on me from across the room, even when my back was turned, I knew exactly what Theo Decker meant. I could stare at that painting for a year, and still not be able to tell you how he did it, but in its presence, I knew that Fabritius did make art and it was magic.

The Goldfinch was painted the year Fabritius died. The most promising painter of his time, student of Rembrandt, an influence on Vermeer, he was killed at the age of 32 when a gunpowder magazine exploded in Delft in 1654. Nearly all his paintings were destroyed. The Goldfinch, for whatever reason, survived. The man explaining the painting in the museum claimed that if you look at its surface closely, you could still see minute traces of the explosion. Who was luckier, the bird or its audience? Hard to say.

What is indisputable is that the painting has lost none of its power in more than three centuries. If anything, it’s more precious now by virtue of its deathlessness. As Theo says on the last page of his narrative, “it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” Seeing’s believing.