Art imitates life in a real explosion that almost destroyed The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch began its strange life almost 370 years ago; a delicate, eye-catching study in oils of a small captive bird. It is one of the few surviving works of Carel Fabritius, a Dutch artist of the Delft School. In fact The Goldfinch is one of just a few works that this pupil of Rembrandt is thought to have completed during his short life. Yet over the past decade, since the publication of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel of the same name, it has become one of the world’s best known works of art.

Now fresh research into the life of Fabritius, carried out for a new book, has revealed an astonishing fact. The painting, famous for coming through the fictional, lethal museum bomb blast that kickstarts Tartt’s plot, turns out to have also survived a devastating explosion in real life.

When Fabritius’s home town of Delft was rocked in 1654 by the sudden detonation of a vast gunpowder store, the 32-year-old artist, who was working on a portrait in his studio, lost his life. But his painting of a goldfinch, we now know, was retrieved from the wreckage. It bears marks that forensic science has proved came from the terrible blast that went off in a nearby arsenal.

“Anyone familiar with Tartt’s novel, or with the 2019 film, may remember the fictional protagonist supposedly rescues Fabritius’s painting from a terrorist explosion in New York’s Metropolitan Museum,” said Laura Cumming, the author of Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death, a book about the painter to be published this week.

“It is extraordinary that something similar actually happened to the real painting itself,” said Cumming. “I’ve been able to see CT scans taken by the great conservator Jørgen Wadum [the first ever made of a painting] which show tiny pocks and dents in the paint. Together with other forensic evidence, what they confirm is that the painting was still wet when the gunpowder exploded. It was in the house with the painter that day. Fabritius was killed, but The Goldfinch survived.”

Cumming’s book explains that the painting had been X-rayed before, when curators at its home at the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague had “noticed some small indentations in the surface”. But Wadum’s scans exposed far more. “What they show is that the painting bears the traces of a blast, the minuscule indentations of hurtling matter, broken shards, hard pellets blown scattershot through the air, across the room, pocking its surface in an instant,” writes Cumming in Thunderclap, which takes its title from the disaster in Delft. The scans also reveal that the painting did not split into fragments because it was still wet, possibly even incomplete, still drying slowly on the studio wall.

Cumming, who is the Observer’s art critic and also author of the acclaimed memoir On Chapel Sands, has been interested in Fabritius and his work since childhood, when she was given a black-and-white postcard reproduction of his image of the little bird.

“It seemed such a solitary being, tethered forever on its perch, and though the postcard was old, the image seemed to live outside time,” she said. In fact the art communicated with Cumming in the rather personal way that Tartt describes in her novel, like “a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you. An individual heart-shock.”

Donna Tartt in 2015.
Donna Tartt in 2015. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

The artist’s death in the “Delft thunderclap” was the best known thing about him until Tartt’s book, as Cumming points out: “Fabritius’s reputation was pretty much buried with him on that day, and only recently have some of his precious few works come to light. But the easy theory that he must have painted more, and they were all destroyed in the explosion, turns out to be completely untrue, as I discovered while pursuing his life and art.”

Cumming’s book compares the Dutch explosion to the blast that devastated parts of Beirut in 2020. She benefited from the knowledge of the experts who worked at that scene when she looked into the blast in Delft. “I was very lucky to have their help to piece together what actually happened on that day, why some lived and others died,” she said. “The teenage Johannes Vermeer, for instance, lived only two bridges and four streets away from Fabritius, yet his house stood and his family survived.”

“Fabritius left hardly any works,” said Cumming. “At a time when Dutch Golden Age artists were painting hundreds – in one case even thousands – of pictures, he produced barely a dozen. And every one of them has this quality of solitude, of figures depicted alone, living inside their heads. He is like a Romantic painter centuries before his time. And though he studied with Rembrandt, he is the rebellious pupil, always going his own way. It’s as if he flings the shutters open to let the light and air into Dutch art.”

In Thunderclap, she adds that she wanted to find one more “certain truth” about the artist, and the scans provided it. Now she knows, she writes, “that when I stand in front of this painting it carries the last of his energy as an artist painting a picture”.