The Mystery of Fabritius and the Delft Gunpowder Explosion of 1654

The Delft Gunpowder Magazine Explosion on 12th October 1654 destroyed a quarter of the town of Delft, in the western Netherlands. Amongst the devastation, the studio of artist Carel Fabritius, a promising student of Rembrandt was completely obliterated, resulting in the loss of prominent paintings and the death of Fabritius himself.

Fabritius’ most well known surviving painting and one of the most iconic paintings in the world, The Goldfinch, depicts a tiny bird chained to a perch. It is renowned for its remarkable realism, and is the inspiration for the 2012 novel of the same name, by American author Donna Tartt. The painting came to Scotland for the first time last year, exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch. Photo Credit: The Scotsman

Barely a dozen of Fabritius’ paintings survive, with many claimed by the explosion. Therefore, the vast majority of knowledge we could have gained on the artist and his style is simply lost.

The explosion itself is depicted in a painting in the National Gallery, showing a town in absolute devastation. It was caused by a worker carrying a lantern attempting to inspect the town’s gunpowder store resulting in the death of hundreds of people, killed in both the explosion itself and the fire that proceeded to ravage the wooden buildings of the town. The explosion was heard as far as 150 kilometres away and was so forceful that many citizens of the town believed it to be the end of the world.

Egbert van der Poel, A View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654.                                              Photo Credit: national

We will never know the extent of the works lost by Rembrandt’s talented and mysterious pupil, as many of the records in Delft detailing his works were also lost in the explosion. Although many different paintings have been attributed to Fabritius over the centuries, each attribute has been extremely controversial in the art history world. This makes The Goldfinch even more prominent as one of the only surviving examples of his work, and unique for the time. It has also been speculated that Fabritius may have taught Vemeer, therefore bridging the gap between Rembrandt and Vemeer.

Overall, it is certain that extremely significant work was lost during the Delft gunpowder explosion. Painted in the year of his death, The Goldfinch remains one of the few examples of work we have from Fabritius, and it continues to be one of the most important paintings from that time period, as we do not have evidence as to how the painting came about or which direction Fabritius would have gone on to take with his work afterwards.





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