To commemorate 350 years since the death of Rembrandt, we discover more on the project to create a touchable replica of a masterpiece.
A tiny goldfinch. So real you might almost be able to touch it. But this little bird is completely still – a clever illusion from the hand of a gifted painter whose life was cut tragically short, not long after putting the final brushstrokes to this now priceless painting.
‘Trompe L’oeil’ is the name given to artwork as an illusion. Paintings in this style deliberately intend to deceive the eye, which is an irony which is not lost on the team at , who were tasked with creating not one, but many replicas of The Goldfinch for use in the movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In the film, Theodore Decker (played by Ansel Elgort) is viewing The Goldfinch at the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art when a bomb explodes, killing his mother and changing his life forever. In the chaos of the explosion, Theodore takes the painting and hides it. The parallels between the fictional film and the real-life journey of Carel Fabritius’ Goldfinch are almost stranger than fiction. Both Goldfinches endured a devastating explosion, both mysteriously disappeared.
The Disappearing Goldfinch
By the time of the horrific ‘Delft Thunderclap’ of 1654, Carel Fabritius had already established himself as a respected artist, having trained under Rembrandt, but already showing a style that clearly distinguished him from the Dutch Master. When a gunpowder store was ignited by an errant lantern, the resulting explosion destroyed most of the city, including the Doelenstraat studio where Fabritius was working. He was rescued from the rubble and taken to hospital, but his injuries were too severe and he died aged just 32 years old. In the aftermath, it would have been impossible to know what survived or was destroyed, but we do know that The Goldfinch inexplicably reappeared two hundred years later in Brussels. In 1896, it was purchased at a Paris auction by the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands, who have since shared this exquisite example of Fabritius’s work at museums all around the world, inspiring Donna Tartt and countless others with its beauty and tragedy.
A replica of an illusion
By today’s standards, the goldfinches of yesteryear had unhappy lives. In Dutch, they are commonly referred to as ‘puttertjes’ ‘little water drawers’ because they were kept as pets to perform this as a trick. The birds would sit, chained to a perch (as can be seen in Fabritius’ painting) with a feeding bowl and a glass from which they would draw water up with a thimble. This was particularly loved by children and an ideal challenge for an artist who might wish to practice the skills of illusion.
As you might imagine, to create a replica of a clever trompe l’oeil that has stood the test of centuries is no mean feat. And while Maurithuis director Dr. Emilie Gordenker told the Sunday Telegraph that the original painting has “slightly more depth and resonance to it,” she deemed ’s camera-ready reproduction as being “very, very close.” It was the original 3D scan from this facsimile that provided the basis for the movie’s many goldfinches – some of which have apparently found their way into the homes of the cast as gifts from the production company, Warner Brothers.
If the measure of art lies in its ability to tell stories, then surely The Goldfinch has more than achieved success. Even through the use of an immaculate replica, via the medium of a gallery in a movie, the story of the young artist who might have been a master has travelled further than he could ever have imagined.
Discover more about Carel Fabritsius and his infamous painting in an interactive journey from the Mauritshuis. ’s beautiful elevated print reproduction of The Goldfinch can be also be purchased from the museum.