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Small Wonder

Carel Fabritius 1622–1654 Young Master Painter

An exhibition at Mauritshuis, The Hague, September 23, 2004–January 9, 2005; and the Staatliches Museum, Schwerin, January 28–May 16, 2005

Carel Fabritius 1622–1654

by Frederik J. Duparc, with contributions by Gero Seelig and Ariane van Suchteren
Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis, The Hague/Staatliches Museum, Schwerin/Zwolle: Waanders, 160 pp., $35.00

On a tranquil autumn morning in 1654, 80,000 pounds of gunpowder exploded in the middle of Delft, destroying a third of the city. The ill-fated arsenal was located just down the street from the home of Carel Fabritius, “the greatest artist that Delft or Holland ever had.”

Decades later, in his Great Theater of Netherlands Painters and Paintresses (1718–1721), Arnold Houbraken recalled the scene:

KAREL FABRITIUS, an excellent painter of perspectives, famous as the best of his day, was also a good portrait painter. Where he was born, and when, remain unclear, but it is known that he lived for many years at Delft, and also that his name is mentioned in the municipal records for the year 1654, the 12th of October, when the powder magazine exploded, along with his mother-in-law and brother and Simon Decker, sexton of the Oude Kerk, whose portrait he was painting at the time, as well as his disciple Matthias Spoors, all of whom were very pitifully crushed to death under the rubble after the collapse of the house. Fabritius alone still had some life in him when he and the others were pulled from the rubble under which they had lain for six or seven hours, and because the physicians’ houses had mostly collapsed as well, he was taken to the hospital, where after a quarter of an hour his woeful soul departed from his horribly bruised body. And thus (he was only thirty years old), in the bright sun which was just rising, he unexpectedly succumbed. Arnold Bon wrote this elegy on the occasion of this sorrowful accident.

Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,

In the midst, and at the height of his powers,

But happily there arose out of his fire

Vermeer, who masterfully trod his path.


Many artists have created famous masterpieces while still very young. Rembrandt painted his Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp when he was just twenty-six. But Rembrandt had a long and splendid career ahead of him, and when we look at the Anatomy Lesson, we think less of the painter’s youth than of his mastery. Other artists who died young—Raphael and Mozart come to mind—left such a large body of work that it is hard to imagine what they left undone. We can enjoy their work without grieving for the waste of their early deaths.

Such is not the case with Carel Fabritius. So few of Fabritius’s works have survived—twelve at last count—that when we look at his paintings we cannot help wondering about what has gone missing, and what was still to come.

Fabritius almost disappeared completely. There were other scattered references to him in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and even those were vague (“Where he was born, and when, remain unclear”). These fragments suggested that Fabritius was a link between Rembrandt, his teacher, and Vermeer, who lived close by in Delft and was ten years Fabritius’s junior. But the paintings were as scant as the biography. Some had been given fake Rembrandt signatures, others confused with the work of other masters. A few had slipped anonymously into private collections. An important group portrait went up in flames in the nineteenth century. When the British scholar Christopher Brown published a monograph on Fabritius in 1981, he could identify only eight paintings.

The recent exhibitions in The Hague and Schwerin, Germany, and their accompanying catalog offered the most comprehensive picture of Fabritius’s achievement since the seventeenth century. In his preface to the catalog Frederik J. Duparc cites the many recent scholars who have filled in holes in Fabritius’s biography. Since Brown’s 1981 study, certain paintings have been demoted from Fabritius’s oeuvre, while others, previously attributed to his contemporaries, have been added. Besides the twelve more or less secure works, Duparc’s catalog essay lists five additional paintings that are possibly by Fabritius. Even including these, we have half as many paintings by him as by Vermeer.


Carel Fabritius was born in 1622 in the country known as the New World of the Dutch Republic, a land renowned for its citizens’ innovations in every field of science, religion, politics, and art. Fabritius was born in the newest part of that New World, the Beemster Polder, north of Amsterdam.

In Dutch today, the word “polder”—referring to the tracts of low-lying lands reclaimed from the sea—connotes everything dull, flat, small, and square about the Netherlands. But in the seventeenth century, the polders were glamorous new frontiers. From 1606 to 1612, the Beemster was drained in an epic struggle so heroic that the laureate Joost van den Vondel later celebrated it in ringing verses:

Cream and butter came springing from her breast.

The fishy body became untainted, virginal flesh.

When Carel Fabritius was born in the Beemster, a scant ten years after its creation, that idyll lay somewhere in the distant future. In 1622, the Beemster was still a wilderness of muddy green, unadorned by trees or towns. Fabritius’s parents had moved there six years earlier; his father was the polder’s first schoolmaster. Their fellow pioneers labored for years to bring the new land under cultivation, to build their houses, to improve the rough roads, and to dig and deepen the canals that kept the land from sinking back into the sea. The region was so new that the church was not dedicated until a year and a half after Fabritius was born. That church, in Middenbeemster, is one of the earliest purely Protestant churches in the Netherlands. It was designed by Hendrick de Keyser, who also created Holland’s supreme patriotic monument, the tomb of William of Orange in Delft.

In addition to running the school, Carel Fabritius’s father, Pieter Carelsz, was an amateur painter. Only one painting attributed to him survives, a large panel showing the church of Middenbeemster, which is rendered in the naive manner of the folk artist. Pieter Carelsz has filled in the space to the left of the soaring steeple with some stiff clouds, through which an angel bursts, dangling the Beemster’s matter-of-fact coat of arms: a cow in a field, atop a layer of water. For one presumably without artistic training, it is a commendable job. But it hardly foreshadows the genius of his son.

Little is known about Carel Fabritius’s youth or early training, but his father’s hobby must have influenced his sons, since three of them became painters. In 1641, aged nineteen, Carel married the sister of Middenbeemster’s minister and soon decamped to Amsterdam, where he became a pupil of Rembrandt’s. During this period, he made several pictures in the style of his teacher. Rembrandt’s influence surfaces not only in the dark palette of these early works but in the way his pupil treats traditional themes, removing overt literary and historical symbolism in order to play up the expressiveness of his figures. We know from technical research that when Fabritius’s “successor” Vermeer revised his own works, it was often to remove the elements that most obviously lent themselves to symbolic meanings. At this early stage, when he was painting works on biblical or classical themes, Fabritius, too, seems to be trying to free his work from the dense allusiveness that had sustained artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Fabritius’s first steps in this direction seem timid, and even occasionally baffling. One work thought to be from his period with Rembrandt is Hera (circa 1643). The subject of the painting is probably an episode from the Iliad, Hera’s flight to the house of Oceanus and Thetis during the battle of the gods and giants. The picture shows a woman reclining by a waterside, stalked, perhaps, by some off-screen pursuer. She is cowering at the edge of the water, and in her fright has dropped a comb. The painting’s most surprising element is the eerie reflection in the water, which transforms the lovely goddess into a skeletal grotesque out of Munch or Ensor.

Yet for all her apparent distress, Hera, or whoever she is, seems a bit too posh to convey real terror. With the costly jars and an elegant parasol beside her, and the peacocks on the rock behind her, she could be enjoying an afternoon at the lakeside. Besides the ghostly reflection in the water, the only indication of danger is the comb she has let fall into the water. But this detail is lost in a blur of many others, and is so small as to be scarcely noticeable. When the viewer does pick it out, the comb only enhances the improbability of the scene. Why is a woman fleeing a bat-tle between the gods and the giants combing her golden locks by the waterside?

In a painting from the Salzburg Residenzgalerie, Hagar and the Angel, a large, glowing canvas that Fabritius painted around the same time, he located the psychological center of an ancient story more successfully than he had in Hera. The painting refers to the following story:

Hagar, fearful of her mistress Sarah, has flown to the desert, having become pregnant in Sarah’s place, after which “her mistress was despised in her eyes” (Genesis 16:5). But the angel of the Lord appeared to her by a fountain on the way to Shur, and said to her, “Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.” When Sarah finally becomes pregnant herself, she asks Abraham to banish Hagar, who is again sent into the wilderness, together with her newborn son Ishmael. This time, too, the angel appears to Hagar and saves her from dying of thirst by showing her a well of water near by (Genesis 21:19).

Though Hagar’s second flight is the one more commonly depicted—the scene of the bereft servant and her infant son—Fabritius portrays the first flight, when Hagar is pregnant. That would not be so interesting if, as one of the contributors to the catalog, Gero Seelig, claims, Fabritius had not deliberately conflated the two scenes:

Only the prominently displayed flask alludes to the scene usually chosen, in which an empty flask indicates that the refugees are dying of thirst. In the earlier episode depicted here…the flask no longer refers to thirst. Indeed, because the well is not depicted… the flask is even misleading.

In this sleight-of-hand, we can suspect that the young artist is chafing at canonical practice. He has not yet abandoned the literary subject entirely, however. He blurs the two scenes, but still leaves his painting anchored in a traditional text. Still, when the trick is explained—that the artist has inserted a flask into a depiction of Hagar’s first flight from Abraham and Sarah—one can’t help but see the gesture as an inside joke.

Yet by following Rembrandt’s example and focusing on his characters’ psychology, Fabritius created a fascinating painting, with or without the biblical references. Hagar and the Angel shows a woman kneeling in prayer, not yet aware of the angel looming behind her. Fabritius has stopped the angel’s hand just before it reaches the desperate woman’s head—this central gesture is eloquent and beautiful.

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