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Carel Fabritius Photo

Carel Fabritius

Dutch Painter

Born: February 27, 1622 - Middenbeemster, Dutch Republic
Died: October 12, 1654 - Delft, Dutch Republic
Movements and Styles:
The Baroque
Dutch Golden Age
"His sudden, early death (at the age of 32) and the probable loss of paintings in his demolished studio made Fabritius into a local legend and an historical enigma"
1 of 4
Art Historian Walter A. Liedtke
"Our vision of Carel Fabritius is dominated by a sense of loss."
2 of 4
Art Historian David R. Smith
"[Fabritius'] technique of depicting a real space [...] is one aspect of an exceptionally sophisticated, sensitive, inventive style which extended established pictorial conventions, and in part formulated new conventions in response to an intellectual interest in empirical observations."
3 of 4
Art Historian Walter A. Liedtke
"Carel Fabritius is perhaps the only one among all the pupils of Rembrandt who, in the real sense of the word, became a master."
4 of 4
Art Historian W. R. Valentiner

Summary of Carel Fabritius

Though less well known than his Dutch Golden Age contemporaries due to his tragic and untimely death, Fabritius was a bone-fide free spirit working within the Baroque tradition. He left only a small number of portraits and genre paintings - just 13 confirmed artworks - but these reveal him to be an artist of no little historical significance. Indeed, he is considered Rembrandt's most gifted and important student and, having left the great Dutch Master's charge, he went on to become a key figure within the mid-17th century School of Delft; a group known predominantly for its views of the city and its daily life, coupled with quieter, more considered, interior compositions. At Delft, his work typically employed delicate shading with dark figures set against a light background. His interest in the laws (and limits) of perspective and pictorial spatial relations, meanwhile, saw him share an affinity with his fellow Delft artist, Johannes Vermeer.


  • The artist's two greatest masterpieces, The Goldfinch and The Sentry, each display an extraordinary clear light and atmospheric tone which mark an emphatic break with Rembrandt's heavy chiaroscuro model. Of all his surviving works, these two paintings celebrate the artist's willingness to investigate subtleties in compositional illusionism and narrational ambiguity respectively.
  • The surviving paintings of Fabritius's show a highly refined technique. His early reputation was built on a series paintings through which he experimented with combinations of glazes and carefully chosen areas of impasto. Through the latter technique, passed down in history through the likes of Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens, he was able to create domestic narratives of tactile depth and texture.
  • Fabritius ignored the stress on iconography that characterized the Renaissance style focusing rather on the formal aspects of painting. His interest lay in the technical aspects of color harmony, lighting and perspective and his treatment of weather effects in particular have been singled out for their delicacy.
  • Fabritius's interest in pictorial space led him to experiment with a cylindrical perspective box (a device that was popular amongst Dutch artists during the seventeenth century). The perspective box enabled him to produce a convincing illusion of an interior or exterior space with the inside of the box painted in a way that, when viewed through a small opening or peep hole, gave a convincing illusion of a three-dimensional space.

Biography of Carel Fabritius

The fine and delicate details of <i>The Goldfinch</i> (1654)

Carel Fabritius's best-known work is undoubtedly The Goldfinch, which he painted at the age of 32. That same year Fabritus perished in the "Delft Thunderclap"; when 40 tons of army gunpowder was accidentally ignited, killing an estimated 100 people.

Progression of Art

The Raising of Lazarus (1642)

The Raising of Lazarus

Though he would soon produce artworks very much in his own style, Rembrandt's influence is pronounced in the Raising of Lazarus, one of Fabritius's earliest known canvases. Indeed, Fabritius renders this well-known scene from the Bible, in which Lazarus rises from the dead, in his mentor's distinctive "dark and light" manner. Rembrandt was a master of shading which he used to create intricated reflections of light but Fabritius took his master's technique a step further giving the scene a realistic shadowy depth of field.

Here, Fabritius's palette uses black (predominantly) blended with other colors to convey an all-pervasive sense of dusk. The sparse application of light emanates from the resurrected Lazarus, seen seated in his tomb at the lower central portion of the image. Jesus stands above him with his right arm outstretched, his latest miracle providing evidence of his piety. Fabritius proves adept at conveying the majesty of the event in the faces of the astonished onlookers who have gathered to behold Christ's miracle.

Oil on canvas - Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland

Mercury and Argus (1646)

Mercury and Argus

This painting, which at first appears to be a pastoral genre scene, with two relaxing male figures and a group of cows and sheep, in fact presents a mythical story. In the story, the God Jupiter falls in love with a woman named Io, and he turns her into a cow to hide her from his jealous wife, Juno. When Juno learns of this deceit, she asks the shepherd Argus to guard the cow from Jupiter. Jupiter finds out, and sends Mercury to steal back the cow. Following Juno's orders, Argus gives Mercury wine until he falls asleep (the moment depicted by Fabritius), and proceeds to cut off his head with a sword (seen here laying to the left of Argus).

This painting marks Fabritius's evolution in style, away from Rembrandt, towards greater picture illumination. For centuries the painting was however catalogued as a Rembrandt (in 1764, believing it to be a genuine Rembrandt, the work was copied by Fragonard). Sotheby's changed the attribution to Fabritius as late as 1985 after discovering Fabritius's signature. His moniker, which appeared to have been obscured by paint at some point, was likely to have been concealed by someone hoping to sell the painting as a Rembrandt thereby increasing the work's value. Philip Conisbee, senior curator of European painting and sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, notes that "The rich texturing is [indeed] like Rembrandt, but Fabritius used a subtle coloring and blond tonalities that should never [have been] mistaken for Rembrandt's work".

Oil on canvas - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Portrait of Abraham de Potter (1649)

Portrait of Abraham de Potter

Fabritius was active as a portraitist from the late 1640s until his death. Portrait of Abraham de Potter was amongst his first. On first glance, his portrait of the silk merchant (Abraham de Potter) appears rather conventional. The sitter is dressed in sober black attire, and a stiff pleated ruff that was the height of fashion in mid-seventeenth century Holland. However, closer scrutiny of the painting reveals the artist's self-conscious departure from the stylistic preferences of his mentor.

While Rembrandt generally executed his portraits with bleak, opaque, backdrops and dramatically spot-lit subjects, Fabritius placed his sitter against a non-descript stained plaster wall, the goal being to bring heightened illumination to his subject who he captures with a deftness of delicately and touch. Indeed, Fabritius's most famous genre pieces, The Sentry and The Goldfinch, feature similarly weathered, light gray backgrounds. Fabritius's more animated approach would influence his Delft School colleagues Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer (the latter believed by some to have been a pupil of Fabritius's although this cannot be corroborated) both of whom employed blank backgrounds to the same effect.

However, a more remarkable feature of this painting is an astonishing trompe l'oeil which appears in the shape of a "protruding" nail, complete with shadow, that sits between the inscriptions of the sitter and painters' names. This feature attests to Fabritius's early interest in illusionist effects and his first professional attempts to use optical illusions to bring about a perception of three-dimensional realism. His was an interest shared by his friend (and fellow pupil under Rembrandt), Samuel van Hoogstraten. Both artists experimented with tromp l'oeil and intricate perspectives for paintings destined to be displayed in cylindrical perspective boxes. These served the duel function of shielding important paintings from dust damage and/or to surprise the viewer when the hinged portal or peephole was opened or exposed to reveal the three-dimensional picture housed within.

Oil on canvas - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall (1652)

A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall

The View of Delft, a tiny panoramic picture measuring only 15.4 x 31.6 cm., is an anamorphic view of the town. In the foreground, a sullen looking street vendor guards a lute and a bass viol while to his left, in the background, we see the Nieuwe Kerk church, the Town Hall and a row of houses that stretch along the canal. The church is illumined against a blue and white sky while the glorious summer sky allows the trees to cast their shadows over buildings in a scene of many tonal reflections. Fabritius incorporated his signature into the scene, too, placing it on the wall behind the vendor, almost as if it were a piece of graffiti. The painting was completed two years after the son of Willem the Silent, Prince Willem II, had died and been laid to rest in the Nieuwe Kerk leading some to speculate that the painting was prompted in some way by the prince's death.

This scene was painted with an unusual and complex perspective, as if viewed through a wide-angle lens. The visual effect is enhanced by the dramatic foreshortening of the viol in the foreground. It is however believed that the painting was intended to be displayed on a curved surface, or viewed through a cylindrical perspective box, in which case the image would appear proportionate (when seen in three-dimensions). Although it cannot be ascertained exactly what type of viewing device the painting was created for, it is known that Fabritius experimented with, and even built, such devices (as did his friend Samuel van Hoogstraten, whose Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House (1655-60) was executed just a few years after this work by Fabritius). Indeed, according to the writings of van Hoogstraten, Fabritius worked on several larger perspective paintings though these were most likely lost in the explosion that cut short his life.

Art historian and writer Walter Liedtke believes it likely that, while studying with Rembrandt in Amsterdam, Fabritius may have encountered intriguing ideas on perspective presented in a manuscript copy of the first edition of Leonardo's Trattato della Pittura (which was published in Paris for the first time in 1651). Liedtke argues that Fabritius's View of Delft "is one of the greatest and historically most significant monuments of seventeenth-century Dutch painting not because it broke with the tradition in any way, but precisely because it represents a conscious effort to extend the established representational conventions in accord with a deepening interest in the physical environment".

Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London

The Sentry (1654)

The Sentry

In this, undoubtedly the most enigmatic of all Fabritius's paintings, a sleeping sentry sits in front of three structures: a wall, a column and an arch. A small black dog watches the sentry as he naps while in the archway above, we see a relief of Anthony the Great, the patron saint of farmers and livestock (identifiable by the pig standing at his feet). This painting, completed the year of Fabritius's premature death, demonstrates the artist's preference for bright colors, clear light, atmospheric tone and his willingness to experiment with geometric architectural shapes in order to effect narrative anomalies.

Art historian Christopher Brown refers to The Sentry as "the most mystifying of all Fabritius's paintings", and with good reason. Indeed, one of the reasons The Sentry has resonated with historians down the centuries is the work's formal ambiguity and its lack of narrative closure; it is neither a coherent narrative nor a metaphorical painting. For instance, the street corner on which the sleepy sentry rests features a set of inconsistent architectural forms that effectively place the soldier in an unclassifiable location. The free-standing column appears to serve no other function than to obstruct the full opening of the gate while the general mood of ambiguity is only heightened through the stone relief inscribed with the half-figure of Anthony the Great. Its very presence suggests that it must be a narrational clue of some sort, but it only adds to the picture's hermeneutic puzzle.

A recent analysis revealed plans by the artist to include a second figure walking on the wall behind the gateway, although it remains unclear what narrative function this figure would have served. It has been posited that he (or she) may have been meant as an enemy, posing a threat to the unconscious sentry. Whatever the intention, the figure's inclusion would have only added to the painting's mystery. It is the fact that Fabritius was willing to push boundaries in this way that many historians have been willing to speculate that he would have usurped Rembrandt as the greatest master of the Dutch Golden Age.

Oil on canvas - Galerie Alte & Neue Meister - Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Schwerin, Germany

The Goldfinch (1654)

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch holds a unique place in the history of Dutch painting. In this trompe-l'oeil painting, Fabritius depicts a European goldfinch (puttertje in Dutch), set against his signature whitewashed wall, and sat atop a bird feeder comprised of a blue container housed within two metal or wooden half-rings. Ostensibly, the painting belongs to a genre of still lifes that feature dead birds such as those produced by Fabritius's fellow countrymen Jan Baptist Weenix and Cornelis Lelienbergh. Fabritius's painting is not a still life, however. His bird is positively alive; able to fly away at any moment (were in not tethered to the lower ring).

The Goldfinch remains one of the most moving and powerful masterpieces of Dutch art because of the candour and simplicity of its composition. Unlike the aforementioned artists whose work was preoccupied with capturing picture minutiae, Fabritius eschewed fine detail in favor of a series of loose brush strokes to evoke the pet's feathered frame and the foreshortening of the animal's head (finer details are saved for the rings and chain). Fabritius was intent rather on creating an illusion of a bird ready for flight and if one viewed the image from a reasonable distance, then the soft shadows cast onto the blank wall by the bird, the feeding box and the lower ring (and the ring onto the box), give the painting a three-dimensionality.

Technical analysis of the painting, conducted in 2003, revealed that the panel on which the goldfinch is painted was once covered by a gilded frame, and attached with ten nails. Historians suspect that the work was at one point part of a piece of furniture (perhaps a door to a cabinet), or combined with another structure to serve as a cage for a painted, rather than living, bird. The analysis also revealed several small indentations in the surface of the work, leading to the hypothesis that the painting somehow (perhaps through divine intervention) survived the explosion that killed Fabritius and destroyed his studio.

Oil on panel - Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery, The Hague, Netherlands

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Carel Fabritius
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Carel Fabritius Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 03 Dec 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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