Donna Tartt’s enormous novel about a little painting keeps flying off the shelves. “The Goldfinch” is currently No. 5 on The Washington Post bestseller list, where it’s been for 36 weeks. And apparently, we’re not just carrying it around unread to impress our friends. A witty piece in the Wall Street Journal calculates that the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Goldfinch” is the most-read bestseller of the summer.
If you’ve finished all 771 pages, you may want to learn more about the 17th-century painting at the center of the story.
Deborah Davis is about to release a Kindle Single called “Fabritius and the Goldfinch: A True Story of Art, Tragedy, and Immortality.” Somewhere between an essay and a full-scale biography, this chatty e-book describes the life and culture of the painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654).
Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt in the Dutch Republic’s flourishing art market. Though immensely talented, he struggled constantly to earn enough money to support himself and his family. After suffering a series of personal tragedies, he was killed in a horrific gunpowder explosion that destroyed a huge section of Delft and most of his paintings.
Davis is the author of several nonfiction books, including “Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X” (Tarcher, 2003). Her new portrait of Fabritius is always engaging, though some readers may be unnerved by her ability to know what people were thinking almost 400 years ago. The most remarkable example of her clairvoyance comes in this passage describing the moment before a civil servant and much of Deft were blown to pieces: “He should have left [the lantern] outside the powder magazine but, stepping into the enveloping darkness, all he could think of was lighting a path for the superior walking behind him.”
Perhaps such novelistic touches add a sense of trompe l’oeil that Fabritius would have appreciated. After all, he was a master at creating the illusion of life. His little yellow bird seems to perch in front of the wooden panel on which it’s painted.
“Art historians continue to debate Fabritius’ body of work,” Davis writes. “Some experts count a mere twelve acknowledged paintings, while others include additional pieces.”
What’s not up for debate, though, is the popularity of “The Goldfinch.” Its exhibition at the Frick Collection in New York last year drew almost a quarter of a million people. Davis quotes an art dealer speculating that the painting may be worth $300 million: “When considered by the square inch, ‘The Goldfinch’ might be one of the most valuable paintings in the world.”