On the morning of Monday, October 12, 1654, the former sexton of the Oude Kerk in Delft was sitting to Carel Fabritius for his portrait in the latter’s studio on the Doelenstraat. Between 10 and 10:30 in the morning the 80,000 pounds of gunpowder stored in one of Delft’s nearby arsenals, ‘’t Secreet van Hollandt’, exploded, destroying roughly one-third of the city. The house collapsed around Fabritius and his client. Among the more than 500 estimated victims of the catastrophe were the artist, his pupil Marthias Spoors, his mother-in-law Judick van Pruyssen, a brother or brother-in-law of the artist, and his sitter Simon Decker – and probably a good deal of Fabritius’s work.
Fabritius was just 32 years old and had been painting for about ten or eleven years. He had moved to Delft from his native Middenbeemster only four years earlier, at about the time of his second marriage, to the Amsterdam widow Agatha van Pruyssen, whose family was originally from Delft. Fabritius may have hoped her family connections would help him find patrons, for – like many seventeenth-century Dutch painters – throughout his life he seems to have had trouble making ends meet. He did not join the Delft guild, for example, until 1652, and even then paid only six of the required twelve guilders, and surviving documents concern a variety of unpaid loans.
For over a century, Fabritius’s few surviving paintings have provided a glimpse of an extraordinarily talented artist, whose unusual and enigmatic subjects have tantalized generations of art lovers. Yet, even in seventeenth-century inventories, some of his paintings were apparently listed under the names of others artists. It was only in 1807 that he again emerged into public notice when his haunting Sentry(1654, Schwerin) was put on display in the Musée Napoléon. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Museum Boymans recognized that it owned a selfportrait by Fabritius, originally bequeathed to the museum as by Rembrandt, and shortly thereafter acquired a large Family Portrait (now destroyed). At the same time that Théophile Thoré was pulling together an oeuvre for Fabritius’s Delft contemporary Jan Vermeer, the author/collector also identified and acquired Fabritius’s Goldfinch (1654, Mauritshuis) and sought to learn more about the artist. Over the years art historians have attempted to identify additional paintings as well as locate archival documents. In 1981, Christopher Brown published a full monograph and catalogue raisonné on Fabritius. This book detailed all known documents of the artist’s life and all known paintings: eight, to be exact. When a signed painting of Mercury, Argus and Io (now Los Angeles County Museum of Art) appeared at a sale in Monaco in 1985, a new dimension was added to our understanding of Fabritius’s style, permitting the convincing attribution to the artist of three additional early history paintings whose attributions have circulated in the literature under a variety of artists in the circle of Rembrandt: Hagar and the Angel (Coll. Schönborn-Buchheim, Vienna, on loan to the Residenzgalerie, Salzburg); Hera (Pushkin State Museum, Moscow); and Mercury and Aglauros (Museum of Fine Arts Boston), catalogue numbers 2, 3 and 6, respectively.
In the exhibition for which this book is the catalogue, Frits Duparc has thus taken the opportunity to bring together all twelve of the known signed and convincingly attributed paintings: starting with Brown’s eight paintings, he has removed the Man in a Helmet (Groningen, cat. 13), added a Selfportrait rejected by Brown (Munich, cat. 4) and, in addition to the four history paintings mentioned above, tentatively attributed four more paintings: the Slaughtered Ox in Glasgow (p. 34, fig. 23) that the Rembrandt Research Project has suggested may have been painted by Fabritius when he was in Rembrandt’s studio, and three portraits once attributed to Rembrandt that the RRP has also suggested may be by Fabritius instead: a half-length portrait pair of an unknown man and woman (Coll. Duke of Westminster; p. 37, figs. 27, 28), and the Portrait of an Elderly Woman (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; p. 39, fig. 31). The one painting in the catalogue that is difficult to reconcile with the rest on the basis of the catalogue photograph is the added Selfportrait in Munich (cat. no. 4) which has been so marred by past relinings and retouchings that, to my eye, a secure attribution is difficult.
What appears to have been the most ambitious of Fabritius’s paintings will, however, remain forever an enigma. This is the large family portrait signed and dated 1648, destroyed by a fire that swept through the Museum Boymans in 1864. It is now known only through a textual description in the 1862 museum catalogue, a watercolor created from memory after the fire, probably by the diplomat Alphons de Steurs (different in a few details from the published description), and a drawing of one of the figures in the sketchbook of the nineteenth-century Rotterdam artist Jacob van Akkersdijk. The portrait measured 161 x 237 cm. or 5.25 x 7.75 feet. Duparc rightly places it in a class with the large-scale family portraits that Bartholomeus van der Helst was creating in Amsterdam at about the same time, comparing it with one now in the Hermitage dated 1647 (the caption accompanying the photograph incorrectly dates the latter to c.1655, although Duparc’s essay correctly suggests that Fabritius might have been able to see it before finishing his own painting in 1648). Duparc is tempted to link Fabritius’s Family Portrait to a payment of 78 guilders and 10 stivers made to the artist by Balthasar Deutz in October 1649. If this payment was indeed received for this large family portrait, given the usual cost of such portraits, either it was a partial payment or the artist was sorely underpaid.
Indirect evidence suggests that Fabritius worked as an older assistant in Rembrandt’s studio from around 1641 to 1643. Certainly his Raising of Lazarus (Warsaw, cat. no. 1), and the four recently attributed history paintings suggest a close knowledge of the older master’s work, reinforced by the tentative attribution to Fabritius of the Slaughtered Ox and three portraits once attributed to Rembrandt himself. But by the time Fabritius moved to Delft in 1650, he was creating paintings of striking originality. Even his inventive early history paintings tantalize us with a talent that was recognized in his own time: shortly after his death he was praised by the publisher Arnold Bon (in Dirck van Bleyswijck’s 1667 description of the city of Delft) as “the greatest artist … that Delft or Holland has ever had.” While an unsurprising encomium for a recently deceased colleague, the surviving work does reveal a very talented artist.
The high quality of the catalogue illustrations, as well as the entries written by Gero Seelig and Ariane van Suchtelen, masterfully reconstruct for those who have not seen the exhibition a sense of Fabritius’s special qualities, from the unusual subjects of many of his history paintings to the richly varied paint handling by which he created faces, silk fabrics, craggy walls, bird feathers, and perspective effects. The latter range from a view of Delft’s Nieuwe Kerk from the southeast (National Gallery London, cat. no. 9), apparently produced for a perspective box – of which sources indicate Fabritius created a number – to the trompe l’oeil nail that protrudes, between the names of sitter and artist, from a weather-beaten wall in the Portrait of Abraham de Potter (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, cat. no. 8). The exhibition and its record in this beautifully produced catalogue are a fitting tribute to an original and still enigmatic artist.
Ann Jensen Adams
University of California at Santa Barbara