Carel Fabritius (1622-1654)

One of Rembrandt’s most talented students

Carel Fabritius Het Puttertje MH605 Mauritshuis

Carel Fabritius was a Dutch 17th-century painter with a completely unique style. He painted portraits, still lifes, views of towns and cities and history paintings, often in bright colours and with clever lighting.

In 1654 Fabritius painted one of his most extraordinary pictures, The Goldfinch. It is a lifelike portrait of a little bird pictured against a white wall. That same year, at the age of 32, Fabritius was killed when a gunpowder warehouse exploded in Delft. As a result, he left behind a small but very varied body of work consisting of only 12 paintings, each one of which is a unique masterpiece.

 

Life in Amsterdam and Delft

Fabritius was born in the Middenbeemster area just north of Amsterdam. He left there at the age of nineteen with his new wife Aeltje, and they went to live in Amsterdam. There he learnt how to paint from Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Fabritius lost his first wife and three children when he was still young. He moved to Delft with his second wife in 1650. The illusions and calm atmosphere in his paintings probably inspired the painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Like Vermeer, Fabritius was almost forgotten after he died. In the mid-19th century he was ‘rediscovered’ by French art critic Théophile Thoré (1807-1869). Until then, his paintings had mainly been bought and sold as Rembrandts, sometimes even with a false Rembrandt signature.

Vermeer Gezicht Op Delft Mh0092 Mauritshuis
Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660 - 1661

Student of Rembrandt

Because of his amazing brushwork, Fabritius is believed to be one of Rembrandt’s most talented students. He later developed a style of his own, but in his first paintings we can still clearly see the influence of his teacher. They are history paintings made with broad brushstrokes, in dark, warm colours and with dramatic light – just like Rembrandt’s paintings.

 

Rembrandt Van Rijn Saul En David MH621 Mauritshuis
Rembrandt van Rijn, Saul and David, c. 1651 - 1654 and c. 1655 - 1658

Own style

When Fabritius moved to Delft in 1650, it was a great time for painting in the town. Artists like Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) were experimenting with ways of showing perspective, light and colour. Only a few paintings from Fabritius’ time in Delft still exist today. But they clearly show that his style had changed. He was working with lighter colours. Using just a few shades of grey and ochre (a kind of yellow) he was able to create a calm atmosphere better than any other artist.

Fabritius also produced work in which he played with perspective to create an illusion. These paintings had to be looked at from a certain angle, or in a special box, which made the image look very deep. Fabritius probably also painted murals on walls in Delft with interesting tricks of perspective, but sadly none has survived.

Trompe-l’oeil

Fabritius managed to make his paintings look just like real life. The official term for this way of painting is ‘trompe-l’oeil’, which literally means ‘trick the eye’. Thousands of years ago, in classical antiquity, painting a living creature in a very lifelike and realistic way was seen as the most difficult challenge for an artist. Fabritius used broad brushstrokes and did not paint many details. But he still managed to create a convincing illusion. From a short distance, even with its rough outline, the goldfinch looks very real.

Some of Fabritius’ paintings, like The Goldfinch, have a white wall with the plaster falling off in the background. He even used this background for portraits of people. This is unusual because people usually like to have a nice background in their portrait. Fabritius painted flaking plaster by placing a few thick strokes of paint on the canvas using a palette knife. This technique makes it seem like we are looking at a real wall. To make the illusion even stronger, he sometimes even painted a nail in the wall.

Carel Fabritius Het Puttertje MH605 Mauritshuis
Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654

Disaster in Delft

On the morning of Monday 12 October 1654 a terrible disaster happened in Delft. Around 90,000 pounds of gunpowder stored in a warehouse exploded. The explosion caused an ear-splitting blast. Almost a third of the town was destroyed, and there was a giant crater where the warehouse had been. The disaster killed many people, probably over 500, and thousands more were injured.

That morning Carel Fabritius was working at his studio close to the warehouse. It was completely blown away. He was rescued from the ruins, but he was so badly injured that he died soon after. A lot of his paintings must have been destroyed by the explosion. Only four remain from his years in Delft, but every one of them is a very important Dutch painting. Imagine how great this talented painter would have become if he had survived the disaster.

 

Egbert Van Der Poel A View Of Delft After The Explosion Of 1654 National Gallery London
Egbert Lievensz. van der Poel, View of Delft after the explosion of 1654, 1654, National Gallery, London