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 …

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