Carel Fabritius’s ‘A view of Delft’

May 22, 2020 0 Comments

You can take a train to Delft – or you could, in pre-Virus times – walk to the corner of Oude Langendijk and the Oosteinde in the city centre, look to the north-west, and see what the painter Carel Fabritius saw there on a bright summer’s day in 1652. 

A few things have changed, it’s true.  The canal’s been filled in, and some of the houses have been replaced, but the streets remain, the Nieuwe Kerk is still there, and beyond it, the Town Hall in the large market square.

Carel Fabritius, A view of Delft, with a musical instrument seller’s stall
(London, National Gallery)

Then again, you wouldn’t be able to see the view in quite the same way as Fabritius represented it, in his A view of Delft with a musical instrument seller’s stall (National Gallery, London).  Though it measures only 15.4 x 31.6cm, this is a painting of consuming mystery, and one of the greatest works of the Dutch Golden Age.  Trying to say why is both quite easy and very difficult.

Carel Fabritius was born in 1622 in the village of Midden-Beemster, thirty kilometres north of Amsterdam.  His father, Pieter Carlsz., was a teacher and an amateur painter, and he adopted the family name Fabritius, from the Latin faber (maker, or skilled craftsman).  Appropriately, Carel started out as a carpenter (tinnerman).  In 1641 he married Aeltge Velthusius, a pastor’s daughter, and the two moved to Amsterdam.  It was a difficult period.  Their two children died very young, and Aeltge herself died in 1643.  But, probably through his wife’s family connections, Carel spent some time in Rembrandt’s studio – he would have seen Rembrandt’s great work The Night watch being painted – and the experience started him on his path towards artistic fulfilment.

Carel Fabritius, Portrait of a man
(Rotterdam, Museum van Beuningen)

Rembrandt’s influence is clear in the two undated paintings that can be safely attributed to Fabritius’s time in Amsterdam. One is a student exercise showing the raising of Lazarus, full of dramatic light and shade, the other a bold, unconventional portrait, now in Rotterdam – almost certainly a self-portrait – of a young man with long dark hair, an open-necked shirt and an assertive expression.  Christopher Brown, the author of the standard monograph on Fabritius, calls it, with justification, a ‘proto-romantic’ picture.

After Aelge’s death Fabritius returned to Midden-Beemster, and presumably lived with his parents.  Nothing is known about him in this period, but he continued to paint, producing two works that have survived, the Portrait of Abraham de Potter and a family portrait, destroyed in a fire in the nineteenth century.  Then, in 1650, he remarried.  His new wife was a widow from Amsterdam, Agatha van Pruyssen.  She had family in Delft, and the two moved to that city.  Fabritius seems to have been stimulated by the lively artistic culture of Delft, and his remaining four paintings are remarkable for three things: they’re completely different one from another, they mark a move away from the early expressive style, and they’re all full of experiment and daring.

Probably the earliest of the group (it’s signed ‘C FABRITIUS’ and dated 1652) is A view of Delft.  It’s a small but wide canvas, in three parts: in the centre is the south-east end of the Nieuwe Kerk, the New Church, and on the right, a tree and a row of houses, with canal, receding into the distance.  On the left is something very different.  Two musical instruments lie on a table: a recumbent viola da gamba, and a lute leaning on a wall.  Behind them, and in front of a dark trellis, sits a saturnine man, surveying the scene contemplatively, a wide-brimmed hat on his head, his thumb propping up his chin.

What strikes most people about A view of Delft, though, is not its composition or content, but its perspectives.  We seem to be looking at the scene through a wide-angle lens.  The view is flattened out. The surface of the canal bridge looks too broad, weirdly elasticated.  The viola de gamba is huge, and violently foreshortened.  The church seems too small, and the Town Hall beyond it absurdly small.  What’s going on?

Samuel van Hoogstraten, A peepshow with views of the interior of a Dutch house (London, National Gallery)

Most scholars now seem to agree that Fabritius made his painting for a specific purpose: to fit inside a closed perspective box or peepshow.  The canvas, they say, would have been bent into a concave shape and fixed to a curved matrix at the back of the wooden box.  The viewer peered through a small hole at the front, and as the eye moved from left to right across the picture, the anamorphism – the distorted perspectives – miraculously resolved into a realistic, almost 3D view of the streetscape. The church became larger, the canal bridge shrank, and the music shop projected, as it should, at right angles from the line of the  Oude Langendijk.    Maybe the picture was continued, at the bottom, through painting on the floor of the box (so softening the extreme foreshortening of the viola).  Walter Liedke, an American authority on Fabritius, was entirely persuaded by this theory, and made reconstructions to support his case.

Reconstruction of peephole version of Carel Fabritius’s A view of Delft

But there are problems with the theory.  It’s true that peepshow boxes were common in the Netherlands from about 1650 (six of them survive to this day), and Fabritius would have been familiar with them.  As it happens, the National Gallery possesses one of them, made by Samuel van Hoogstraten, a fellow-pupil with Fabritius in Rembrandt’s studio.  But there are no examples of concave backgrounds: the pictures in Hoogstraten’s box are painted on flat wooden surfaces, not canvas (and they’re taller than Fabritius’s canvas).  Interiors of houses were the subject of peepshow pictures, not streetscapes.  Fabritius’s painting shows no obvious signs of paint cracking, as one might expect from a frequent bending of the canvas.

Perhaps Fabritius didn’t intend his painting to be seen by a single eye straining for a few seconds to see an image inside a small wooden box.  Perhaps he wanted to it to appear as we see it today, flat on a wall, where it could be closely inspected and admired.  After all, it’s clear he lavished enormous care on the detail of A View of Delft.  When the canvas was cleaned in 1992-93 the subtlety of his colours emerged – the bright blue of the sky, reflected in a tiny hint of pale blue on the belly of the lute, as well as on the surface of the cobblestones (which are carefully graduated in size as they recede).  His name is painstakingly painted in capitals, partly in the shadow of the lute, on the surface of the wall.  Fabritius surely spent hours building the peeling, multicoloured surface of the old wall.  In short, isn’t this a painting that’s far too sophisticated and highly worked to be locked away in a novelty gadget?  (A different explanation for the origin of the perspectival distortion is that in making his picture Fabritius used a camera obscura, another device familiar to Dutch artists of the period: a pin-hole camera, combined on this occasion with a double concave lens.)

Carel Fabritius, A view of Delft (detail)

Certainly Fabritius wanted us to marvel at his visual conjuring – at how he’d translated what his eyes saw, on the corner of Oude Langedijk and Vrouwenrecht, into a startling wide-angled spread.  But if we turn from technique to content, there’s even more reason to think that Fabritius wanted us to think long and hard about his painting, rather than snatch a monocular glance at it through a pinhole.  Not only is A view of Delft the earliest surviving street scene in Delft painting, it chooses a singular, unobvious viewpoint, on the corner where two streets meet at an acute angle.  The composition, in two contrasting parts, is equally striking.  To the right, occupying just over half of the whole, are the bright, sunny streets, curiously empty of people.  We can just make out a woman standing in front of the Oude Landedijk canal, and on the far right two barely visible figures are about the cross the bridge from the church to the Vrouwenrecht.  But the streets in the immediate  foreground are as oddly deserted as those in a painting by Giorgio de Chirico – or our locked-down streets today. 

In the left-hand part of the painting, the musical instruments and the wall share some of the brightness of the streets, but behind them, in shadow, sits a brooding man.  Who is he?  Some have taken him to be the instrument seller, but he seems to be detached from the viol and lute, and from the job of interesting people in buying them.  His hat and clothes indicate a man of some substance.  And his face looks suspiciously like that of Carel Fabritius, if we read the two portraits in Rotterdam and London as self-portraits.  Could this be the painter at rest in his own town?  The moodiness and introversion of the man are accentuated by the trellis behind him, its black vertical slats topped by dark foliage.  Just down the street beyond is an inn, identifiable from its sign, a swan, hanging outside.

Carel Fabritius, A view of Delft (detail)

So what should we make of the painting?  Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings often incorporate moral lessons and accompanying symbolism.  Some commentators see A view of Delft as presenting an antithesis between, on the one hand, hedonism and materialism – represented by the musical instruments, the tavern and the supposedly idle man – and the purer, spiritual world of the Nieuwe Kerk on the other.  Others point to the fact the great tomb of William the Silent lay in the church, and that the body of the late Stadholder, William II, had been placed in the church two years before. 

But to me all this seems forced.  These are reductionist interpretations of a painting that resists interpretation.  Fabritius is not telling us how to think or feel about his picture.  He leaves it up to his viewers to make of it what we will.  For me, it captures a rare, even transcendent, paused moment.  The city has come to a stop.  The instruments are silent, and no one passes.  The inn is shut.  Even the wind is still in the trees, and the water in the canals.  It’s a time to sit in the shade, to prop up one’s chin with one’s thumb, to listen to the silence all around.  A view of Delft is the quietest and most modest of paintings, and somehow it’s fitting that it’s on a small canvas.  For us today, in our paused coronavirus moment, it has much to tell us.

Carel Fabritius, Portrait of a man in a fur cap and a breastplate
(London, National Gallery)

The other three Delft pictures by Fabritius, all dated 1654, have the same reticent, undeclarative quality: they leave much for the viewer to do, and each has spawned a large literature.  The Portrait of a man in a fur cap and a breastplate in the National Gallery is probably a self-portrait, and takes as its starting point Rembrandt’s much earlier portraits of himself wearing a ‘breastplate’.  But this is very different.  The background isn’t dark, but consists of two, raggedly divided areas of cloud.  It isn’t a military-style portrait: the man wears a soft wool or fur cap.  His hair is dark and tufty, and his expression borders on the surly.  The paint is more carefully applied than in the earlier, Rotterdam portrait, with flashes of pure white as a highlight in the bandolier.

Carel Fabritius, The goldfinch (The Hague, Mauritshuis)

A similar sudden primary flash appears as the yellow paint on the wing of the well-known Goldfinch, in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.  This picture shares the illusionism of A view of Delft, though the painterliness of the image of the bird works against the tromp-l’œil effect.  Fabritius suggests that the goldfinch is in slight, twitching movement: he’s deliberately painted it sketchily and impressionistically.  By contrast he observes the perches and their shadows, and the links of the thin metal chain, with minute precision.

Carel Fabritius, The sentry (Schwerin, Staaliches Museum)

The fourth painting, The sentry, in Schwerin, is closest in feeling to A view of Delft.  Here we’re a back lane rather than a street, just inside one of the city gates.  A helmeted soldier, watched by a dog, has his head bowed over a wheel-lock gun, which he’s priming (he’s not asleep, as some assume).  He sits, legs splayed, on a very low bench, a dark figure with a bright wall and single column behind him.  To the left, through a low arch with lifted portcullis, there’s a building or buildings.  In the top part of the picture we can see a flight of stairs, and a sculptured frieze of St Anthony and his pig.  The composition is complex and brilliantly organised (the portcullis fulfils a similar function to the trellis in A view of Delft), and the colours carefully modulated, with just a few highlights.  Historians have not known what to make of this picture.  Soldiers are not uncommon in Dutch art, but why is this one apparently so unsoldier-like in his appearance?  What if any is the significance of St Anthony, known for his eremitic life, and his pig?  (Anthony, incidentally was the saint to turn to for release from epidemic diseases.)  Who is the man whose legs we can see on the other side of the portcullis (they were only revealed after restoration of the painting in 2004)?  What’s the significance of the functionless column?  What is the paper attached to the column? The truth is that the artist wasn’t interested in giving us a key to reading his painting.  It simply stands as it is, for each of us to study and contemplate.

Egbert van der Poel, A view of Delft after the explosion of 1654 (London, National Gallery)

The end came suddenly. Fabritius, we’re told, was in the middle of painting a portrait of a man called Simon Decker in his house in Doelenstraat on 12 October 1654 when Delft’s municipal powder magazine exploded.  About a third of the city was destroyed. Another artist, a neighbour of Fabritius called Egbert van der Poel, painted views of the aftermath.  Among the many dead was Carel Fabritius.  He was only 32 years old.  Just eight paintings have survived that can safely be attributed to him.   In 1667 he was remembered in a book by Dirck van Bleyswijck:

Carel Fabricius, an outstanding and excellent painter, who was so quick and sure in the use of perspective as well as natural colours and in putting them on canvas that, in the judgement of many connoisseurs, he has never had his equal.

There was another painter in Delft, active at the time Bleyswijck was writing, who would be able to make a similar or a greater claim.  Johannes Vermeer was admitted to the Guild of St Luke, the Delft guild for painters and other artists, in 1653, a year after Fabricius joined it.  The two, born ten years apart, must have known each other, though no written sources survive that link the two.  Fabritius left no ‘Fabritius school’ of artists in Delft: he was simply too various and experimental in his practice.  But it’s not too fanciful to detect a broad artistic connection between him and Vermeer.  Both were absorbed by the challenge of reproducing in paint the falling of light, and using colour to transcend reproduction and build a work that could exist in its own right.  And they were linked by something less tangible but more unusual, a bold reticence in the way they approached their subject and its treatment.

Johannes Vermeer, A view of Delft (The Hague, Mauritshuis)

Among the best known of Vermeer’s surviving works is the painting called A view of Delft, made in about 1660-61, six years after Fabritius’s painting of the same name.  On the face it this is a very different scene (though it shares one building, the Nieuwe Kerk, shining in the distance).   It’s more watery than its predecessor – we see not a canal but the wide harbour to the south of the city, outside the Schiedam and Rotterdam gates  – and the sky is a mix of white and darker clouds, so that the sun strikes some buildings, and casts some shadows, but not others.  Vermeer’s simple front-on view of Delft has a superficial resemblance to standard topographical paintings of the period, in comparison to Fabritius’s experimental streetscape, but it too is, more quietly, unconventional.  Despite their differences the two paintings share a common aura – one of undisturbed serenity.  As in Fabritius’s work, Vermeer has a few human figures, whose isolation and miniscule scale simply add to the feeling of stillness.  He makes no attempt to point the viewer into any particular direction, or to focus on a single point or theme, he simply asks us to watch in silence and take in everything we can see.  His painting, like that of Fabritius, captures not simply a specific place, but a moment in time – a moment that may appear to be a perfectly ordinary one, but one that’s unique, memorable, unrepeatable.

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