The Goldfinch

“Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue,…… he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting….” Amazon. So goes the description of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize- winning book entitled The Goldfinch. In 2019 we have a movie of the same title. I didn’t read the book and mostly dozed through the movie, but that’s me – no reflection on the quality of the book or movie. But I am fascinated by the subject of the title – a painting of a European Goldfinch by Carel Fabricius, a Dutch painter of the 17th century.

Fabritius painted a variety of pictures, mostly portrait types. His most famous picture was one entitled The Goldfinch, painted in 1654, the year he died. The European Goldfinch is a small songbird native to Europe, North Africa and western Asia. The bird has a red face, a black-and-white head, black wings crossed with yellow, a black tail and white rump. All these colors contrast with the creamy tan wall in the picture.

         In the painting the bird sits on top of its cage, secured by a thin chain. Goldfinches have long been domesticated; 2000 years ago Pliny mentioned their ability to perform tricks. In the 17th century it was popular to capture goldfinches and teach them various tricks. In the wild, the birds hold thistles with their feet as they extract seeds, an ability exploited by their human stewards. The birds would be tethered by a chain to their nest/food box and trained to pull up a chain or string to which was attached a bucket filled with seeds or water. The Dutch title of the painting, Het puttertje, means “the weller.”

I find this painting fascinating, so on a recent trip to Europe, I went to The Hague in the Netherlands and visited the Mauritshuis, a small but attractive museum that houses many great masters’ works such as Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson and Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring. The Goldfinch is a small painting, 9 x 13 inches, but impressive nonetheless. A few years ago I visited the Louvre where I saw the Mona Lisa, unfortunately from a distance behind a crowd of tourists and their phone cameras. Mona Lisa had become famous after Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. Partly in recompense by fate, I was able to see The Goldfinch in an empty room. A relative dearth of tourists caused by the pandemic allowed me to see up close and personal one of my favorite paintings.

It seems that the goldfinch appearing in paintings such as Madonna of the Goldfinch, by Rafael about 1506, predicts the crucifixion. The goldfinch feeds among thorns that encircle Jesus’ head, the bird’s red face coming from Jesus’ blood. At least 486 devotional pictures containing the goldfinch were created during the Renaissance, with the bird almost always in the hands of the Christ child. An iconic bird, indeed.

4 thoughts on “The Goldfinch

  1. We lived in Holland near The Hague 1978-80, and the Mauritshuis was one of my favorite places to visit. The Goldfinch was also one of my favorites – after I got over the small size of the original painting. In the art appreciation class I attended while living in Holland, the symbolism of the European Goldfinch that you mentioned was mentioned as you described it. Your article brought back wonderful memories of Holland and its rich art collection. You also mentioned my #2 and #3 favorites: Anatomy Lesson and Girl With a Pearl Earring. And the Holbeins in the collection aren’t bad either.
    Thank you for your regular articles with such interesting information.

  2. Goldfinches are frequent visitors to our Liquid Amber tree in Autumn, when the leaves have fallen and the seed pods are prominent. I have many a photo and video clip taken from my study window as they feed on the seeds. I have always wondered at the name, as the gold is no more prominent than the red face and black as well. I have often thought that I may have chosen Harlequin finch. We are in Auckland, New Zealand.

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