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Fabritius’s Chained Goldfinch, and Donna Tartt’s Chained Fabritius—The Goldfinch that won the Pulitzer

By Christopher Gellert

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654)
The Goldfinch, 1654
Oil on panel
13 ¼ x 9 in. (33.5 x 22.8 cm)
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654)
The Goldfinch, 1654
Oil on panel
13 ¼ x 9 in. (33.5 x 22.8 cm)
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

In Fabritius’s painting a small, insubstantial piece of feather and beak dressed in gold and black sits patiently on a green perch, its thin chain almost imperceptible. He looks at us with a pair of eyes we could not understand were his heart to beat; tied to the painting he is less alive and more real to us. Donna Tartt links her newest book to this small painting of this small bird and chains them together too. It is a small painting; bird have hollow bones, and neither one nor the other can bear the anchor in Tartt’s to truly take flight. Fabritius’s Goldfinch is famous enough to already carry associations for many readers, and Tartt’s work is now famous enough that the associations between the painting and the novel will go both ways. We can’t help but think of the painting without thinking of the novel. Now that Tartt has one the Pulitzer, this association has only become stronger, gotten worse.

About a week before The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer, a friend of mine told me how one of her acquaintances had strongly urged her to read Donna Tartt’s newest novel. It seemed you couldn’t descend into the New York subway without spying someone with this book in hand. This wasn’t the first time someone had recommended the book to her, but this round the suggestion was particularly grating. This third party told my friend that she ‘must read it!’, an order made all the worse by the recommender’s mewling baby-girl lilt. Needless to say, my friend wasn’t anxious to pick up The Goldfinch. It’s all in the delivery. None of us is eager to have our reading dictated to us, and whether its done with a kind of ridiculous bubbly effervescence—the way some people say good morning— or the august hush of the Pulitzer committee, the injunction distracts us from the work. Before we even open the novel, and perhaps before we even seen it we have already have our opinion dictated to us. We do not even judge it by its cover, but sight unseen.

It’s ironic, then, that by detailing the consuming love between the narrator, Theo Decker, and a Dutch masterpiece he rescues from the Metropolitan Museum of Art after a terrorist attack, Donna Tartt undermines the possibility of an intimate —unbiased— relationship for the rest of us with Fabritius’s chef d’œuvre. In the last, rather pedantic pages of the book, Tartt confronts this question of public intimacy with a work, the mediation of copies, and the effects of exposure.

Throughout the preceding seven hundred or so pages, Theo had secreted the painting away, not admitting to anyone he carried it with him in his flight from the museum, and most of the time not even looking at it, save for a series of guilty, almost masturbatory glances during his adolescence. For Theo, the painting is intimately linked with his mother who died in the explosion and left him orphaned after the blast. For Theo the painting is all he has left of his mother. She is the reason why he spirited it away with him as he fled. If he hoards the painting, and hardly dares unwrap it, it is because he cannot admit what he has lost. Only after the painting is returned to the public trust and the public eye can Theo admit to his theft, to his friend, stand-in father, and finally business partner, Hobbie.

Hobbie (Tartt) forgives Theo, but more importantly he asks and answers how we relate t to art and how we perceive it:

…with very great paintings it’s possible to know them deeply, inhabit them almost, even through copies. Even Proust—there’s this famous passage where Odette opens the door with a cold, she’s sulky, her hair is loose and undone, her skin is patchy, and Swann, who has never cared about her until that moment, falls in love with her because she looks like a Botticelli girl from a slightly damaged fresco. Which Proust himself only knew from a reproduction.[1]

Tartt refers, of course, to the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Serach of Lost Time, Swann’s Way, when the narrator describes how Charles Swann, the hero’s precursor and alter-ego, in much the same way that the ‘Marcel’ of the novels is Proust, falls in love for his mistress Odette. He later realizes that he had not indeed fallen for the woman, but rather an image of her, her face in an Botticelli. What Tartt elides is that this kind of squatting in a work of art, or that the jealous attempt to possess it in reproduction, even one of flesh is ultimately ironic, self-defeating. Swann is constantly jealous of Odette, and only is able to gain control of her, marry her, after he no longer loves her. He exclaims famously at the end of Swann’s Way:

Dire que j’ai gâché des années de ma vie, que j’ai voulu mourir, que j’ai eu mon plus grand amour, pour une femme qui ne me plaisait pas, qui n’était pas mon genre! [2]

[To say that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I had my greatest love affair, for a woman whom I didn’t find attractive, who wasn’t my type! {my translation}]

Swann is furious at having lost himself in a reproduction, and Tartt holds this example as admirable.

Perhaps the mediation of a work in copy does not lessen it, or more precisely does not lessen our capacity to love it, but I think we cannot so easily dismiss the gap the copy creates between the artwork and its lover. For, Swann, the literal lover, not only did he fall into jealous rages as a consequence of this distance, but he only became aware of it, aware of the true origin of his obsession after his love for Odette left him.

But let us not think that we need to have an jealously obsessive and itimate relationship with a work of art as Swann does, or Theo in Tartt’s novel to be alienated by reproduction. I had the chance to observe Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch alongside Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring this winter at the Frick Collection when I visited, “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis.”[3]At the time, Donna Tartt’s book, while well received and popular, had not built up the kind of the momentum it has gained with the Pulitzer. However, Girl with a Pearl Earring had already been made into a film with Scarlett Johansson, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier. In the rotunda, among a small crowd of well-dressed folk who had come to appreciate, I tried to shut out the room, its populace, my own distracting integral digressions.  And yet, I could not see Vermeer’s painting without thinking of Ms. Johansson, and then thinking of Ms. Johansson in The Avengers, Captain America, Lost in Translation, &c.

I wanted to be there alone with her, that Girl with a Pearl Earring, but like two lovers at party interrupted by the crowd, we couldn’t manage to talk alone. Ms. Johansson and her various filmic reincarnations got in the way. I managed, however, to get the Fabritius alone. I hadn’t yet read the novel, and knew nothing of the painter. I was able to see and accept the same vulnerable beauty I looked for in the Vermeer, because I had not been anchored by expectations. The painting set alight in my mind.

If what Ms. Tartt says is correct, that the real connection with any work of art is personal— “It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway . Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.[4]— then how can we not be angry at the meddling of others in our private communion, the august committees and talkative friends who tell us what to like, and the authors who paw at our vision and replace it with theirs, who corrupt what might have been an intimate relationship.

Ms. Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch is largely plot, deftly executed as that plot may be. In the novel, we do not see the painting, so much as see its effects, a series of expertly paced scenes. It is a catalyst for the action of the novel. In this way, The Goldfinch is a better Da Vinci Code; the artwork is less important to the reader than the actions it generates. By treating the artwork in this way, Ms. Tartt imprisons it for her reading public just as effectively as Theo did when he hid it away from the world.

I do not mean to imply that a private relationship with a work necessitates its disappearance, that these works would be better squirreled away in private collections. All of us have the right to take them in. Exposure remains, nevertheless a present danger. Ms. Tartt may understand the risks of the kind of broad public a novel might give to a painting— she describes just such a paradox in this fiction— and yet she still manipulates our public and private relationships with art. But what bothers me most about Tartt’s intervention in Fabritius’s The Goldfinch is the way the painting seems merely a pawn for this idea, a mere plot device. Theo’s own personal relationship with the work, his final letting-go of the painting, and of his mother seem illustrative rather than profound; the Fabritius remains strangely secondary. However intimate Theo’s relationship with the painting may have been, it was a relationship with an absence, with the memory of his mother. After reading The Goldfinch, we cannot help but inherit Theo’s links to the work, the distraction of being reminded of Tartt’s tale upon seeing it. The idea stamped at the terminus of her story seems more an interpretation of previous events than a final revelation. It’s not just that we’re distracted from the Fabritius— by any work of art—from Ms. Tartt’s running tales— by the vision of any other— but that she does not truly engage the painting. Disorienting as others’ vision may be, they also allow us to see new greater things, details we’ve missed, but for others’ vision to be helpful, first they have to see past the frame; Donna Tart goes ahead and builds her own in 775 pages.


[1] Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2013. 754.

[2]Proust, Marcel. Du Côté de Chez Swann. Paris: Gallimard. 1988. pg. 517.

[3] The show is now on view at the Palazzo Fava in Bologna.

[4] Ibid. 756.


2 comments on “Fabritius’s Chained Goldfinch, and Donna Tartt’s Chained Fabritius—The Goldfinch that won the Pulitzer

  1. Benjamin Marks Woo
    June 11, 2014

    Thanks a lot for this review Christopher. I recently got the word, literally on the street, from a stranger, lady, sitting next to me who said it was the ‘best book she had ever read’… it seems like there’s certainty something to understand about why the story speaks so much to the zeitgeist, or some spirit that’s out there. Perhaps its the combination of sincere-enough love, crime and the feeble associations with high-art that does it. Your criticism seems astute, right. I’m disappointed by the reminder that the most praised works of our popular media do not live up to the standards of comparison our history has given us (especially your fine comparison with Proust is disturbing), but I suppose we already knew that anyway…

  2. Kathleen R
    June 30, 2014

    I’m so out of the loop. Living outside the US, I have not heard the buzz surrounding this book. A copy of this painting hangs in our cousin’s entryway. It always takes my breath away. So mesmerizing, so tragic, yet so beautiful. I guess I will have to add this to my summer reading list.

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