In Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch," a blockbuster novel currently being read by at least three people you know, a young boy becomes obsessed with a small, intricate painting of a goldfinch -- a real-life painting, also called "The Goldfinch," painted by the Rembrandt protegee Carel Fabritius in 1654. With the popularity of the novel, the painting is attracting newfound attention at New York City's Frick Collection, where it's on display until January 19th. The small painting, about 9x13 inches, shows a European goldfinch perched on a wall-mounted wooden box hung between two brass semicircles and attached to the box with a delicate chain. (A delicate chain, but still, a bird chained to a box.) One end of the chain is looped over one of the semicircles like a handcuff. The other appears to be attached to the bird's foot bone (easily confused for its ankle, which on birds is actually higher up the leg).
"The bird in the Fabritius painting," says Margaret Iacono, the curator of the show at the Frick that includes the painting, "is standing on his feedbox to which he is tethered by a very fine chain encircling his ankle. Goldfinch could be trained to open their feedboxes and feed themselves."
Tim Birkhead, author of "A Brand New Bird" and co-author of a paper titled "Bird-keeping and the development of ornithological science," says this sort of setup was common. "My guess," he wrote in an email, "is that this bird might be brought indoors at night (on its contraption) to avoid being killed by cats or owls." There are plenty of paintings of birds tethered by a cord or chain like this. "This must have resulted in a lot of broken limbs," says Birkhead. But there's more to the painting than that.
"The Goldfinch" is a work of trompe l'oeil, an optical illusion, so that when the painting is mounted just above eye level, it appears real. The frame of the painting has nail holes in it and a nail realistically painted just over the artist's signature, and it has been suggested that Fabritius actually hung the painting with a real birdcage, to enhance the illusion.
But why a goldfinch?
The European goldfinch is not closely related to our own American goldfinch, though human introduction in North America has led to the two species co-existing. The European version is a bit duller than the eye-popping yellow American goldfinch, with just a touch of that yellow in a spot on its wings. It has a red face and brownish-grey plumage, and thanks to its love of thistle seeds -- along with thorns, thistles are said in the Bible to be the only thing that will grow after the fall of man -- it has been a favorite of Christian artists and writers for centuries. Ornithologist Herbert Friedmann, in his book "The Symbolic Goldfinch," found the goldfinch in nearly 500 works of Christian art, largely from Italian artists.
Goldfinches have been kept as pets as early as the Roman empire. The practice was ornamental, the birds kept for aesthetic and status purposes and with very little consideration for the needs of the birds. By Fabritius's time, in his native Holland, pet goldfinches were back in vogue. The aristocracy commissioned elaborate, baroque, gilded cages, and taught the birds a trick: they were trained to dip a bucket on a chain into a cup of water and bring it up to drink, earning them the name "puttertje," referring to removing water from a well. Most paintings of birds from Fabritius's time depict these cages, but Fabritius wasn't alone in his subject; Birkhead pointed me to several paintings by Fabritius's contemporary, Abraham Mignon, who also painted animals chained to things -- including a goldfinch.
It's a glimpse into past practices when animals served as decoration, just like paintings themselves.