Carel Fabritius: a precarious life

The art critic Laura Cumming turns her eye to the elusive Dutch golden-age painter Carel Fabritius.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1622–1654).
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1622–1654). Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo

Thunderclap, Laura Cumming, Chatto & Windus, £25

A man sits on a wooden plank raised just off the floor; his head, covered with a chrome-bright helmet, is tilted forwards. His whole body is in a slump, close to folding over the rifle he has lain across his lap. At his feet — and sitting to attention in the cool tones of the Dutch street — is a small black dog.

A goldfinch sits on a pale blue perch. Its feathers — a mix of blueish-creams, yellows, and browns — find an echo in the shifting, muted tones of the background. But, even if the bird were conjured from other colours, he wouldn’t be able to escape this scene: an airy-thin chain is fastened around the stem of one of his legs, and the delicate gold links curve up and round a metal bar.

A man stares out of the frame, his head pulled back against his neck to give him a sterner, perhaps more belligerent, expression. His eyebrows curve upwards in displeasure, or focus, and his chest — complete with a silver breast-plate — is turned in half profile. Behind the smooth skin-tones and meticulously rendered fabric of his jacket is a two-toned wall. It starts off dark, with cloud-like patching, before an abrupt, jagged edge — like an earthquake’s fault line — marks the change into light.

These three solemn, still paintings were all made in 1654, and all made by one person: the enigmatic, elusive Carel Fabritius. They were made when Fabritius was 32, and only had months, or weeks, to live. On October 12 1654, he died in the cataclysmic ‘Delft Thunderclap’, the accidental detonation of 90,000 pounds of black gunpowder which was stored beneath a disused convent. The explosion tore through the city, tearing down houses and vaporising bodies. It’s tempting to see ghoulish, impossible forebodings of the explosion in Fabritius’s last paintings: the violence lying in wait in The Sentry; the tension of the captivity in The Goldfinch; and the fault-line in his self-portrait.

In her lyrical, meditative book, Thunderclap, the art critic Laura Cumming turns her eye to this Dutch golden-age painter, about whom ‘almost every trace is said to have disappeared’. Part memoir of her father, James Cumming, and his life as an artist, and part love-letter to a lost, underappreciated master of the Dutch golden age, Thunderclap is a rare thing: a book about art in which the words, printed in regular type in black and white, don’t recede into biographical notes or critical ephemera when placed alongside the paintings they describe.

Cumming, with a combination of brilliant clarity and true emotion, revels in the power of paintings, rather than their solely critical merits. For her, one of Fabritius’s early paintings — the perspective-warped A View of Delft — became ‘a staging post’; a regular comfort before meeting someone with whom she ‘was having an almost comically doomed love affair’. But this relationship between art and viewer is one that replicates itself, with tiny changes, for everyone: ‘what you see is what you see, yours alone and always true to you, no matter what anyone else contends’.

It’s a democratic approach for an art critic, but one that Cumming weaves throughout the book. For her, Dutch art itself — with its wintry scenes, its depiction of maids, merchants, and wealthy women of leisure — is ‘so democratic, so all-embracing, so infinite in its reach through everything seen, experienced, imagined, remarked upon, remembered, from the gusting ship to the herring to the girl spellbound by a letter’. Cumming rails against the ‘stuff’ theory of Golden Age Dutch art: the idea that still lives and decadent interior scenes were commissioned so that the viewer could look at their possessions ‘forever’; ‘as if it were just a transcription of the visible world, proficient, but nonetheless documentary’. And in place of discussions over perspective technicalities and optical machinery (the ‘stuff’ used to make a ‘stuff’ painting), Cumming stresses the ‘wildness and strangeness and utter originality, the vision and imagination’.

It is sentences like these — with their rhythmic propulsion, and their radical approach to art history — that make Cumming’s book compellingly undefinable: is it memoir, polemic, criticism, or a creative vision of her own; her own version of the slippery strangeness of Dutch art? Early on, she records how her artist father gave her a dictionary when she left home: in the absence of drawing ability, she has to ‘put words to those images instead’.

But what about the ‘wildness and strangeness and utter originality’ of Carel Fabritius; the artist whose presence, and absence, hovers behind the book? The facts are thin on the ground: ‘in his own time he was scarcely mentioned’ and for a long time after his death, the artist was ‘incessantly’ confused with his brother, Barent Fabritius. Barent’s trajectory — a ‘long and lucky life’; paintings which ‘could command a decent price’ — is the reverse of his brother’s. Carel’s wife and children, died when he was young, and his own life ended with only fourteen paintings to his name. Three of these paintings were hung on the wall of Vermeer’s house in Delft: Fabritius was a painter’s painter, but Cumming rejects the idea that he was merely a ‘missing link’ between Rembrandt (with whom he studied) and his near-neighbour Vermeer.

Cumming gives us more than dates, techniques, and archival details: she tells us that Fabritius was a ‘Romantic figure’, with some of Wallace Stevens’ ‘mind of winter’ in his soul; ‘he walked through the dew-silvered fields of Middenbeemster in freezing winters and high green summers, a level landscape that has not changed at all’. His character begins to mix with that of Cumming’s father; artists united by their dedication and their piercing sight.

If there is fault to be found with Cumming’s book, it is this creative approach to biography. Thunderclap is endlessly moving, intriguing, and deft as it skates across the lives of the artists it covers. But, in trying to rekindle interest and appreciation for an artist who is more slippery, unknown, and opaque than the famous ‘Sphinx of Delft’, Cumming has to rely on her imagination: there are no new revelations here, no finds from archival vaults. But this is, perhaps, an unfair criticism: Cumming’s prose mesmerises and entertains, where a straight biography of Fabritius would be nothing more than fourteen colour plates and narrative holes.

At the heart of Thunderclap is one moment: an extraordinary, accidental, devastating violence. Initially, when presented with the stillness of a snow scene, or the poise of an Adriaen Coorte still life, the title seems a misnomer; a faulty decision to make the whole book about one moment of sudden change, and unexpected death. But soon, with the benefit of Cumming’s gaze, the tension behind all these moments of supposed stillness comes to the fore; behind every bundle of asparagus or glassy landscape, there is the same, inevitable, dance of life and death. There’s no painting that better illustrates this than Vermeer’s industrious, serene The Little Street. The child plays, the woman sews, and the maid sweeps the ground. Vermeer painted the scene of peaceful, normal life when Delft was being re-built; mere days, or weeks, after the 32-year-old Fabritius had been carried out of the ruins of his house, and had died hours later. In Cumming’s Thunderclap, his brooding, enthralling art lives on.


Francesca Peacock