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Carel Fabritius Photo

Carel Fabritius - Biography and Legacy

Dutch Painter

Born: February 27, 1622 - Middenbeemster, Dutch Republic
Died: October 12, 1654 - Delft, Dutch Republic
Movements and Styles:
The Baroque
Dutch Golden Age

Biography of Carel Fabritius


Fabritius' <i>Self Portrait</i>, (c. 1645) Oil on panel

The eldest of three boys, Carel Pietersz was born to Pieter Carels and Berbertje van der Maes in Middenbeemster, Beemster polder, a small village north of Amsterdam. His father was a sexton, schoolteacher, and weekend painter, and, probably with the early guidance from their father, Carel and his brothers, Barent and Johannes, would all go on to become professional painters. However, it is known that Carel and Barent trained as carpenters and, according to the conventions of the time, adopted the surname "Fabritius" ("faber" being Latin for carpenter). In early 1641, Carel entered the Dutch Reformed Church and later that year married his neighbor, and sister of the local pastor, Aeltge Velthuys.

Education and Early Training

In 1641, Fabritius relocated to Amsterdam where he apprenticed under Rembrandt. He was joined by his brother, Barent, and the painter Samuel van Hoogstraten, with whom he would maintain a lifelong friendship. Indeed, art historians such as Piet Bakker have speculated that Hoogstraten might have later worked under Fabritius as a "full-fledged assistant". According to Ariane van Suchtelen, curator of the Mauritshuis museum, Fabritius learned a great deal from Rembrandt in a short time particularly "about light and the ability to capture emotions while using them to tell a story".

Fabritius's stay in Rembrandt's workshop ended after a little less than two years when Aeltge died in childbirth in the spring of 1643. It is doubtful that Fabritius's return to his parent's home (in Middenbeemster) was necessitated by monetary worries given that an inventory of Aeltge's assets show that she left behind the not insubstantial sum of 1,800 guilders (also listed amongst her possessions were two "ruw raengesmeerd" - roughly painted - pictures that are attributed to the hand of Fabritius). His earliest known painting, The Raising of Lazarus, is dated 1643 and, given what is known about the events around Aeltge's death, it is possible the painting could have been made either in Amsterdam or Middenbeemster.

A self-portrait thought to be painted by Fabritius in oil on panel. Date unknown but thought to be 1650.

Details about Fabritius's life are scarce, but records do confirm that the painter was made godfather to his new-born sister, Cornelia, in 1646. He also painted Mercury and Argus and Mercury and Aglauros, works that confirm his divergence from the formal preferences of Rembrandt. Bakker writes that it is not known for sure if these works originated in Middenbeemster or Amsterdam but since it is "difficult to imagine that sparsely populated Middenbeemster afforded him sufficient clientele [..] it is therefore tempting to assume that he travelled back and forth to Amsterdam periodically in the years after his wife's death but before his departure for Delft in 1650".

It is known from the biographies of his small circle of patrons, however, that Fabritius painted a number of portraits before his relocation. In 1649, for instance, he painted the Middenbeemster silk merchant Abraham de Potter, and fellow trader, estate owner and art collector, Balthasar Deutz. It is also thought that he painted a self-portrait for the Amsterdam based silk-thrower Cornelis Smout and his wife Catharina Scharckens who owned an estate in Middenbeemster.

Mature Period

Having relocated to Delft in 1650, Fabritius set up his own studio, established a circle of donors, and even took on a pupil, Mattias Spoors. On August 14, he married the widow Agatha van Pruyssen. Married in Middenbeemster, the couple's residence was listed as Delft and it was in the municipality that Fabritius painted the majority of his "famous thirteen" paintings, including The Goldfinch and The Sentry. It was a further two years, however, before Fabritius joined the Delft painters' guild (the Guild of St. Luke). Other members included Johannes Vermeer, Nicolaes Maes, and Pieter de Hooch, and it is highly likely that Fabritius spent time with these artists.

Bakker attributed Fabritius's delay between arriving in Delft and joining the Guild to the fact that that there was a "profound crisis affecting the art market, which elsewhere in the Dutch Republic was felt strongly only as of the 1660s [but which] had already begun to impact Delft in the 1640s". Indeed, the fact that Fabritius accepted 12 guilders from the Delft town council to paint its coats of arms suggests that he was finding it difficult to make a living wage as a fine artist. Nevertheless, Fabritius still secured lucrative commissions including a number of large vistas of Delft such as those for the home of Theodorus Vallensis, dean of the Delft surgeons' guild and court physician to Stadholder Frederick Henry (His Highness the Prince of Orange). Bakker suggests in fact that one of the reasons that so few of his paintings have been preserved is because "every time new residents moved into a house there was a chance that - driven by taste or fashion - they would replace the wall painting with another kind of decoration".


Egbert van der Poel, <i>View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654</i> (1654). Van der Poel's image records the aftermath of the blast that killed Fabritius and over 100 of his fellow citizens

Fabritius died suddenly and tragically, in the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine on October 12, 1654. The blast destroyed a quarter of the city, including Fabritius' studio and several of his paintings. Fabritius' student Mattias Spoors, and local church deacon Simon Decker, who were with Fabritius in his studio working together on a religious painting at the time, were also killed. Bakker reports that Fabritius was buried within 48 hours of the explosion but his death threw up a new mystery. Agatha (his widow), when signing "an acknowledgment of debt", referred to her late husband "painter to His Highness, the Prince of Orange". Bakker argues that there was "not a shred of evidence for any commission executed for either Stadholder Frederick Henry or his son William II". However, that it would have been "inconceivable that Fabritius's widow would call him a 'court painter' without good reason" and that the blast would most likely have destroyed paintings newly commissioned by Amalia von Solms, the widow of Stadholder Frederick Hendrick.

The Legacy of Carel Fabritius

Fabritius was a leading member of the Delft School, and his influence, particularly in terms of experimentation with perspective and complex spatial effects, as well as the use of soft, atmospheric lighting and daylight effects, can be seen in the works of his esteemed Delft school colleagues, Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch.

A watercolor copy of Fabritius' lost <i>Family Portrait</i>. The original work was destroyed in the 1864 fire at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. This copy by Victor de Stuers is the only remaining evidence of a domestic interior and informal family portrait known to have been be painted by Fabritius.

Given the tragic circumstances surrounding his death, Bakker has summed up Fabritius's legacy in terms of his potential - of what could, or should, have been. He wrote: "Famous paintings like The Goldfinch and The Sentry bespeak such originality and artistic quality that we can only regret all the works he never painted. Unfortunately, his untimely death has made it virtually impossible to determine whether his talent would have eventually been great enough to equal, if not surpass, that of his teacher, Rembrandt Van Rijn". Indeed, the promise shown in his small body of work has prompted other historians to predict that he might have supplanted Rembrandt as the grand master of the Dutch Golden Age.

What is beyond question however is his exploration on the "domestic interior" narrative that became a staple of the Delft School. His influence can be traced through the work of his contemporaries Vermeer (on whom his use of shadows and background light had a particularly marked effect), de Hooch and, indeed, other Dutch artists including Nicolaes Maes.

More recently, Fabritius's public profile gained fresh impetus following the release of Donna Tart's novel The Goldfinch, for which she received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Goldfinch, in which Fabritius's "priceless" painting survives a devasting gallery explosion, was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Ansel Elgort in 2019. The protagonist and secret custodian of the painting, Theo, says this of the artwork: "it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn't touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time - so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality".

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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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