Happy New Year.
For the last week or so, I’ve been engrossed in Donna Tartt’s 784-page novel The Goldfinch, which topped many ‘Best of 2013’ lists. An adjective used in a number of reviews I’ve read, ‘Dickensian’, is apt. (Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times is here; and Stephen King’s is here).
I’m grateful not only for the compelling read, but also for the fact that the book has introduced me to an artist with whom I’d not been familiar.
Early in the going (no spoiler), the book’s protagonist, Theo Decker, and his mother go to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to the titular painting, by Carel Fabritius, and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, the show includes a painting by Adriaen Coorte (~1665-1707). Coorte specialized in still lifes– vegetables, fruit or shells–laid on a stone slab in front of a dark background.
“I like this one too,” whispered my mother, coming up alongside me at a smallish and particularly haunting still life: a white butterfly against a dark ground, floating over some red fruit. The background—a rich chocolate black—had a complicated warmth suggesting crowded storerooms and history, the passage of time.
“They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters—ripeness sliding into rot. The fruit’s perfect but it won’t last, it’s about to go. And see here especially,” she said, reaching over my shoulder to trace in the air with her finger, “this passage—the butterfly.” The underwing was so powdery and delicate it looked as if the color would smear if she touched it. “How beautifully he plays it. Stillness with a tremble of movement.”
“How long did it take him to paint that?”
My mother, who’d been standing a bit too close, stepped back to regard the painting—oblivious to the gum-chewing security guard whose attention she’d attracted, who was staring fixedly at her back.
“Well, the Dutch invented the microscope,” she said. “They were jewelers, grinders of “lenses. They want it all as detailed as possible because even the tiniest things mean something [color and emphasis mine]. Whenever you see flies or insects in a still life—a wilted petal, a black spot on the apple—the painter is giving you a secret message. He’s telling you that living things don’t last—it’s all temporary. Death in life. That’s why they’re called natures mortes. Maybe you don’t see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closer—there it is.”
Not knowing Coorte’s name, and intrigued by the description, I did a Google Image search. While Tartt doesn’t name the painting in question, I’m guessing it’s probably Three Medlars with a Butterfly, above. Even more appealing, to my eye anyway, is the simple painting below, Gooseberries on a Table. The translucency of the berries is exquisite…they seem to glow within.
This discovery was the highlight of a bitterly cold winter’s day.
Trivia tidbit:Through 19 January, readers within striking distance of NYC can see Fabritius’ The Goldfinch at the Frick, where it’s included in a small exhibit titled Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis.