Vermeer and Fabritius: Painted Silence

Updated: Jun 8, 2019


View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer, 1661.

I always wondered what it was like in Delft that day, October 12, 1654. When I think of Delft, I think immediately of Vermeer and his famous View of Delft (1661) with those sturdy buildings under the cloudy skies that had just dropped rain on the city. Imagine a day like that, a few years before, and the artist, Carel Fabritius, working in his studio, a place in a desolate area of town where rent was cheap. Ah yes, where the rent is cheap, the mantra of many artists who live in warehouse districts or reclaim rundown neighborhoods in order to have space to work and live, cheap. Fabritius had obviously done the same, thinking as a young person that nothing bad would happen. We can forgive him for this, for no one at 32 thinks anything bad will happen. However, October 12, 1654, it did - the big KABOOM! The Delft Gunpowder Depot, next to which Fabritius' studio was located, exploded. They say it was a careless match. Whatever the cause, it destroyed Fabritius' studio, many of his paintings, fully 1/4 of the city of Delft, and sadly Fabritius himself.


Measuring the loss of a young artist is always difficult. We see what he had done and extrapolate from that what wonders he might have created had he lived. In the case of Fabritius, his painting, The Goldfinch, clearly indicates that he had moved far from being Rembrandt's top student into someone with a style and a voice of his own. In fact, he left Rembrandt's studio around 1648 and in 1650 even moved from Amsterdam to Delft. There he became part of what is known as the Delft School, the most famous member of which was to be Johannes Vermeer, who some speculate may have studied for a short while under Fabritius. Comparing their styles is sometimes a matter of looking at how they used light. While they both chose to paint ordinary activities, Vermeer's most famous piece has a deep, dark background that highlights the girl and her famous pearl earring, whereas Fabritius' Goldfinch silhouetted a dark figure against a light background.


The Sentry by Carel Fabritius 1654


The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, 1654.

We see that technique here in The Sentry (1654), where a dark clothed figure sits against a light colored wall that turns bright white just above him, where the sunlight hits. The tired guard sits, helmeted head bowed, legs stretched out before him, musket across his lap, as a faithful dog watches over him. The column and walls are stained in a variety of off whites, grays, and beige browns. The stillness of the scene indicates a stolen moment of quiet slumber. Likewise, The Goldfinch, Fabritius' most famous work, recently immortalized by Donna Tartt's 800-page novel of the same name, is also a portrait of silence. The little bird is chained to his perch - no way to fly away, so why sing? It looks out from the bland cream-colored wall to which its metal perch is attached. We feel the silence of its limited life; its small form is silhouetted by its own shadow on the wall.


I remember standing before this painting of the lonely little bird, a tiny little painting of maybe 9" x 13", marveling at its apparent simplicity while contemplating the complex thought behind its execution. I have read that the renovated Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague now has this masterpiece roped off and separated from the other paintings. However, when I was there, one could walk right up to it to study it, like Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was in the same room. Both the girl and the goldfinch look out at us. Both are quite still, like a photo which captures its subject in between movements. Will the girl speak? Will the bird chirp? Not in these pictures. They may both be equally captives. We do not know, for we have only their silence.



The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, 1661.

I must say that in that huge room full of masterpieces, including several Vermeers, this one lovely Fabritius and Vermeer's girl capture the most attention and cause the most contemplation. What is it exactly that they are painting here? Yes, we see two material beings, but are they the real subjects? Perhaps the real subject is something quite immaterial - silence. If that is so, to my mind it is because of the stillness of those figures captured in that moment in time. I think that Fabritius' little bird and Vermeer's girl have much the same quality, that of life paused in a precious moment of silence. And what is more immaterial than silence? You cannot see it. You cannot hold it in your hand. You cannot smell it. You can't really even hear it, for it makes no sound. You simply sense its presence, making it the most immaterial of all things. My final question is how is it that these two painters managed to capture something so abstract through realistically painting living beings?



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Photos of paintings are from public domain sources


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