Thursday, October 25, 2012


Carel Fabritius, Self-Portrait, ca. 1645

 “Carel Fabritius distinguishes himself from among the Rembrandt pupils as a painter of rich gifts and very fair promise.  His art did not get a chance to degenerate with the times, since, born about 1620, he died in 1654, hence in the period of general excellence.  It is difficult to assess his significance in the historical context because little of his work has been preserved and what we do know of him is, thematically, unequal and fragmentary, affording no all-round view although great things might be expected.  Since he moved from Amsterdam to Delft about 1645, the town where Pieter de Hoogh and Vermeer were to begin their work soon afterwards, he seems, as a lively-minded Master given to experiment with the problems of perspective and lighting, to have stimulated not only the go-ahead Vermeer but the sluggish Pieter de Hoogh as well.” 

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

 So, in very brief summary, observed Max J. Friedlander, former director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, in his book Landscape Portrait  Still-Life, Their Origin and Development  (New York, Schocken, 1963).   The somewhat mysterious Carel Fabritius was born in Beemster, the Netherlands’ first polder (i.e., land reclaimed from a lake using windmill power water extraction and surrounded by dikes) in 1622.  On October 12, 1654, at the age of 32, he was tragically killed, and most of his paintings destroyed, in the gunpowder magazine explosion that destroyed one-quarter of Delft known as the Delft Thunderclap.  

Joan Blaeu, Map of Delft, 1652

 Fabritius’ (called Karel Faber or "Karel Maker" here)  fate is recounted in the first four lines of Arnold Bon’s 1667 poem, published in Dirck van Bleyswijck's contemporary Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft (Description of the City of Delft):

Aldus gekneust, geplettert en gebrooken

Aan arm en beenen dat onkenbaar was,

Lag Karel Faber schier versmoort in d'as,

Door 't heiloos kruit; wie weet hoe aangestooken?

Carel Fabritius, Portrait of A Seated Woman With A Handkerchief, 1645 (formerly attributed to Rembrandt)

 In the poem’s final stanza, Bon proceeds to link the premature death of this young Dutch master with the emergence of the successor Delft genius, Johannes Vermeer:

Soo doov' dan desen Phenix t'onzer schade

In 'tmidden en in 't beste van zyn swier,

Maar weer gelukkig rees' er uyt zynvier

Vermeer, die meesterlyck betrad zyn pade.

(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.)

Carel Fabritius, The Sentry, 1654

 The  paintings included here, representing a significant proportion of Carel Fabritius’s surviving work, are worth extended viewing and continuing contemplation.  Those dating from his last two years of life, showing extraordinary development of a memorable individual style, are particularly poignant, especially on a day like today where the world outside my window reminds me of the exquisite Delft sky and foliage of Fabritius’ tiny but universe-dimensions 1652 music instrument seller’s stall view. 

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654 

 There is subtle poetry and a “timeless today” feeling in Fabritius’s work and I particularly love what the poet and painter Tom Clark wrote on his blog entitled Carel Fabritius: The Goldfinch (link) on October 11, 2011 (one day before the 357th anniversary of the Delft Thunderclap) :

 “The exquisite delicacy of Fabritius' lighting effects can be seen most notably in his masterpiece, The Goldfinch (1654), a painting at once wonderful in its assimilation into the substantial being of the chained pet bird, and terribly sad -- who can look intently at this picture without experiencing the inner wish that the lonesome tethered creature be set free?”

Carel Fabritius, Self Portrait, 1654

Carel Fabritius, A View of Delft, 1652 (detail)

Windmill from Kaart Figuratief of Delft, 1678

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