Carel Fabritius - The goldfinch

by Dr. Stefanie Meier-Kaftan


With a size of about 12 cm, it is one of the smallest of the finch species, and yet it has made it to great fame: the goldfinch, also called thistle finch. The name "goldfinch" was brought to him by his fondness for thistle seeds. He has long been at home in the art world, and was also Bird of the Year in Germany in 2016, having previously received even more attention through a novel and its subsequent film adaptation.

The painting "The Thistle Finch" served as the title inspiration for Donna Tart's social novel of the same name, published in 2013. While the book was praised and won the Pulitzer Prize, the 2019 film adaptation of the same name received much criticism. However, this in no way detracted from the painting's fame.


Probably originally intended as a trompe-l'Œil (from the French for "deception of the eye"), the painting was meant to be a painterly representation that created an eye-deceiving illusion of a corporeal object that actually existed. Carel Fabritius (1622 - 1654) created this small-scale masterpiece with oil paint on a wooden panel. It is 33.5 cm high and 22.8 cm wide, and judging by the thickness of the wooden panel, it was probably originally integrated into a panel or part of a piece of furniture. It has been in the possession of the Mauritshuis in The Hague in the Netherlands since 1896.


The image shows the goldfinch, kept as a pet, chained to its food bowl. The chosen light brown tones and natural light clearly show off the yellow in his wing and the red facial mask around his beak. The bird is shown slightly elevated. The simple composition and the angle of view emphasize the majesty of the bird, which enjoyed great popularity due to its colorfulness and symbolic meaning.


The goldfinch has various meanings within art historical symbolism. Thus, among other things, it served as an allusion to the soul of man, which flies away after death. In addition, it stands for the Passion of Christ because the striking black, white and red plumage on the bird's head is reminiscent of the image of the thorn-crowned and blood-covered head of the crucified Christ. As a result, the goldfinch has a permanent place in numerous depictions of the Virgin Mary.


The Dutch painter Carel Fabritius probably created numerous works in his short life and is considered an important student of Rembrandt; unfortunately, only about eighteen of his works are known. Much of his work must have been destroyed in the explosion of an underground powder magazine that killed the artist himself on October 12, 1654. Dated 1654, The Thistle Finch dates from the year of his death.


Carel Fabritius - The goldfinch

Oil on wood, 1654, 33.5 × 22.8 cm, Mauritshuis in The Hague