The Goldfinch
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akhadka's picture


Mauritshuis’ beloved little Goldfinch is going to be on the big screen, however it's not guaranteed much screen time.

The painting will likely spend most of its time wrapped up and hidden as it does in Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name, The Goldfinch. The pulitzer prize winning novel brought quite a bit of fame to the painting and it’s bound to gain more time in the spotlight with the new production in line. Tartt begins her story with a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum, which houses the painting in her fictional tale. (Every catastrophic event at a museum in American film and tv, apparently happens at the Met, ie Ocean’s 8, Neo Yokio.) Amidst the chaos, a young Theo Decker takes off with the small painting and the rest of the story follows his life after the traumatic event.

The real story of the painting is surprisingly similar to Tartt’s novel. In 2003, conservators, for the first time in art conservation, examined the work under a CT scan. They found “small indentations on the surface” of the painting. The painting had been speculated to be a survivor of a blast that killed its creator, Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt’s most promising student, in 1654. Conservators were able to confirm this theory. Even more surprising is that Tartt claims she did not know of the blast before she wrote the book.

“A little piece of nothing, but very good, and extremely valuable” is how Théophile Thoré, French journalist and art critic, described The Goldfinch. He is best known for rediscovering major Dutch artists like Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Fabritius. Théophile, who also shares the same surname as the protagonist of Tartt’s novel, was quite a fan of this painting. A modest collector and scholar of Dutch artists, he really only wanted to keep a few works for himself; Thoré was happy to sell his collection to museums and private collections. However, The Goldfinch was one from which he didn’t want to part, often citing the painting specifically as not for sale in his letters. He is even said to have spent his last moments looking at the painting. The story of Théophile who wouldn’t part with his favorite painting is similar to that of Theo Decker who is in possession of the painting but can’t seem to part with it. Tartt had to have come across this story in her research, after all, she only takes about a decade to write each book.

Théophile Thoré was among the first to make a connection between Vermeer and Carel Fabritius. It is likely that Vermeer was familiar with the work of Fabritius as they were both resided in Delft. The connection between Fabritius and Vermeer is clear in this painting with the sun-drenched wall and the subtle yet rich shadows. The painting thus places Carel Fabritius in between Rembrandt and Vermeer. As mentioned, before, Fabritius was one of the most promising students of Rembrandt. Like Rembrandt, Fabritius scratched on the canvas surface to show texture. The scratch on the goldfinch’s wing is similar to the scratches Rembrandt added to his hair in his earliest self-portrait.

Visitors at the Mauritshuis named the painting the third most beloved painting at the museum. The Mauritshuis also has an online exhibition dedicated entirely to the painting, complete with audio files of what the real birds sound like. Unfortunately, while peaceful at first, the European goldfinches sound a bit like a car alarm while singing. This could explain why some Dutch households chose to hang a painting of the bird rather than own the real thing. The painting is definitely a cherished part of the museum’s permanent collection. It was purchased by Abraham Bredius for the museum at 6,200 francs and is now worth about $300 million.



  1. “10 things you might like to know about the Goldfinch.” Dutch News. September 5, 2015.
  2. Charles, Ron. “ ‘The Goldfinch’ - in print and paint.” July 14, 2014.
  3. Jowell, Frances Suzman. "Thoré-Bürger's Art Collection: "A Rather Unusual Gallery of Bric-à-Brac"." Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 30, no. 1/2 (2003): 54-119. doi:10.2307/3780951.
  4. Schuster, Clayton. “Carel Fabritius.” Sartle. Accessed: March 20, 2018.
  5. “The Goldfinch: a bird’s-eye view.” Mauritshuis. Feb 09 2017.
rzarlif's picture


Back in the old days, chained goldfinches made great pets.

In the 1600's most people in Holland lived in tiny, dark houses...not really that different from today, except now the Dutch can afford those low-energy LED lights. Because television hadn't been invented yet, goldfinches were taught tricks to liven up the house and entertain guests. For those of us who are not ornithologists, the goldfinches are a small bird with yellow feathers.

According to the museum blurb for the painting, some people skimped on buying an actual goldfinch and instead hung up this kind of virtual version. At a short distance it works. The painting is detailed enough that it looks like a live blood and bone finch is perched on a stand. The lack of bird poop, however, gives the illusion away.

The main character in Donna Tartt's red-hot novel The Goldfinch ends up in possession of Carel Fabritius' painting after somone bombs the New York Metropolitan Museum. He becomes obsessed with the work and fails to return it to the Met. The rest is a roller coaster of art felon fiction.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Goldfinch (painting)

The Goldfinch (Dutch: Het puttertje) is a painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius of a life-size chained goldfinch. Signed and dated 1654, it is now in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. The work is a trompe-l'œil oil on panel measuring 33.5 by 22.8 centimetres (13.2 in × 9.0 in) that was once part of a larger structure, perhaps a window jamb or a protective cover. It is possible that the painting was in its creator's workshop in Delft at the time of the gunpowder explosion that killed him and destroyed much of the city.

A common and colourful bird with a pleasant song, the goldfinch was a popular pet, and could be taught simple tricks including lifting a thimble-sized bucket of water. It was reputedly a bringer of good health, and was used in Italian Renaissance painting as a symbol of Christian redemption and the Passion of Jesus.

The Goldfinch is unusual for the Dutch Golden Age painting period in the simplicity of its composition and use of illusionary techniques. Following the death of its creator, it was lost for more than two centuries before its rediscovery in Brussels. It plays a central role in the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and its film adaptation.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Goldfinch (painting).