Carel Fabritius Het Puttertje MH605 Mauritshuis

The Goldfinch: small, ordinary and world-famous

The little bird that Carel Fabritius painted in 1654 has flown around the world. Just what is it that makes this rather ordinary European goldfinch so attractive?

Tim Profiel

Forester Tim


Ariane Van Suchtelen Perspectief

Ariane van Suchtelen


Auke Florian

Auke-Florian Hiemstra

Biologist, columnist, scientist

DJ en producer San Holo

San Holo

DJ and producer

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius is undoubtedly the most-seen bird in all of art history. The enchantment of the black, yellow and red against the white wall – the young Fabritius sensed it perfectly. The light and shade, that beady little eye. The shadow on the wall. He painted the goldfinch in loose, visible brushstrokes, sparing with colour and detail. A little bird with its leg chained, against a slightly damaged wall. That’s all. Not much, just exactly right.

Carel Fabritius was a highly talented painter, a contemporary of Rembrandt and Vermeer. He was in fact one of Rembrandt’s most promising students. But unfortunately, Fabritius’ painting career was not to last long.

Fairly common

The goldfinch is a familiar bird, with a yellow stripe on its black wing, and a red patch around the eyes and beak. Once you have seen a goldfinch in the open, you will probably spot one just as often as a coal tit or sparrow.

The goldfinch, or European goldfinch to give it its full name, is a songbird measuring around 12 centimetres. Varieties of goldfinch occur in Europe, North Africa and Southwest Asia, living near woodland and parks. So they are fairly commonplace.

All audio clips

  • Auke-Florian Hiemstra

    Biologist, columnist, scientist

    Auke Florian
  • Blijdorp Zoo

    Educational staff

Bezoekers Bij Puttertje

Forester Tim

One of Tim's favorite animals is The goldfinch

Deceptively realistic

Did Fabritius own a goldfinch himself? Or did he see one every day? Perhaps. Maybe it was the very fact that it was commonplace – something one might encounter anywhere – that made the bird so attractive to paint. An ideal subject for a painting to fool viewers. This is known in art as a trompe-l’oeil, or ‘deceive the eye’.

What was Fabritius’ intention here? Did he hang the painting in his home? On the bare white wall of his studio perhaps, without a frame, so that a visitor might think for a moment when they entered that there was a real bird there. No better advertisement for a painter.

Technically speaking

Experimenting with trompe-l’oeil effects and perspective was all the rage in Fabritius’ day. Creating the perfect illusion came to be regarded as the highest achievement to which a painter could aspire. Painter and writer Samuel van Hoogstraten was the leading promoter of ‘illusionist’ painting in the 17th century. Fabritius knew him personally, as they had studied under Rembrandt at the same time.

Van Hoogstraten wrote a famous guide – Introduction to the Academy of Painting: or, The Visible World – a bible for painters containing both theory and practical tips. To achieve the best effect, Van Hoogstraten recommended ‘depicting something flat on a flat surface’. A ‘flat’ subject was therefore the best way to deceive the eye.

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  • Ariane van Suchtelen


    Ariane Van Suchtelen Perspectief
Puttertje Effect

CT scan

Millions of museum visitors have viewed the painting from a short distance, but some researchers have managed to look right through it using modern technology. In 2003 The Goldfinch became the first painting in the world to be examined by CT scan.

He seems to have removed a frame and overpainted the background, and the dark edge, with white paint, the colour of the plaster on the wall in the painting. The white was applied around the bird and its feeder. X-ray and infrared imaging have shown that the bottom perch was added afterwards, over the white background, undoubtedly to enhance the trompe-l’oeil effect.

CT Scan Puttertje


Carel Fabritius was a painter with his own unique style He painted portraits, still lifes, townscapes and history paintings, often in vivid colours and with subtle treatment of light.

Fabritius made one of his most extraordinary pieces, The Goldfinch, in 1654. It is a lifelike portrait of a goldfinch against a white wall. That same year, the 32-year-old painter died as a result of an explosion at a Delft gunpowder warehouse. Fabritius left behind a small but extraordinarily diverse body of work, consisting of just twelve paintings. Each a unique masterpiece in its own right.



Keep you to myself

Wandering through the museum, DJ and producer San Holo was looking for something that would move him without him particularly knowing why. He found exactly what he was looking for in The Goldfinch. He’s mad about birds, but what really caught his imagination was the little chain around the bird’s leg.

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  • San Holo

    DJ and producer

    DJ en producer San Holo

San Holo video clip

Keep you to myself

Source of inspiration

Not only for San Holo does The Goldfinch capture the imagination. Down the centuries, musicians, filmmakers, novelists and designers have also been inspired by these little birds.

The song of the goldfinch inspired Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi to write Il Gardellino, a three-part concerto. The cheerful sound of the goldfinch can be heard quite clearly in the fast, dynamic sections.

On a trip to the Netherlands American author Donna Tartt became fascinated by The Goldfinch. She feels it is completely distinct from any other work of art from that period. ‘It’s just its own little marvel.’

The Goldfinch film



Golfinch concert

Get inspired!

Would you like to discover all the details of this painting? Or would you like to learn more about The Goldfinch and Carel Fabritius?

Fabritius Puttertje Detail Second Canvas

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