Balm for the Soul

Carel Fabritius
The Goldfinch

Last year, it was Bernini.  When do we see Bernini in the United States?  This year, it’s Fabritius.  Despite The Goldfinch painting being supposedly located at the Met in the hot novel by Donna Tartt, Fabritius’s precious work lives at the Mauritshius.  It’s currently on holiday at the Frick, along with about a dozen other paintings from that museum.

Why the Bernini comparison?  Not just because these are also Baroque masterworks, this time from Holland.  But because of the effect on the soul.  In an art world that rewards shock, violence, ugliness, and noise, these works, with a key exception, are quiet, intimate, even full of solitude.  As old-fashioned as I am, I find that a balm.


There’s the beauty of the Coorte still life of four apricots, so evocative to the senses of taste and smell, and the Ruisdael panorama of Haarlem, with its bleaching fields–where linens were bleached in the sun.  The four Rembrandt paintings include his delicate, sensitive version of Susanna from 1656.  From the year before, The Old Lacemaker by Maes glorifies the industrious woman making bobbin lace — its tiny patterns had such universal appeal that they contributed to Dutch wealth.  The figure’s meditative focus is painted with religious reverence, calling for us to respect her virtues.

Nicolaes Maes
Old Lacemaker














For some, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer will be the highlight.  What’s useful to know, the painting is a tronie–a head study of a fictional character or type, innovated by Rembrandt.  It is not a portrait, no matter what the wonderful novel by Tracy Chevalier would have you believe.  Sorry to burst your bubble.

Of course, the Fabritius pulled my heart.  Disappointingly, Tartt’s novel has virtually nothing to do with the painting.  But who cares?  The elegant, spare Goldfinch is waiting for you now at the Frick.

Don’t miss the tiny chain attaching the bird’s foot to a mysterious box.  This chain has been interpreted variously as a way to keep the popular Dutch pet from flying away to a moralizing commentary on domesticity and flight.  My favorite interpretation suggests it’s a pet trick, where the bird was taught to pull the chain to release a thimble-full of water in a tiny cup, otherwise hidden in the box.

I first met the painting as a feat of trompe l’oeil, or trick the eye, painting.  In person, I didn’t really experience it as trompe l’oeil.  But it has its own magical draw.

Jan Steen
Girl Eating Oysters

Even Jan Steen displays an eloquent beauty in his diminutive Girl Eating Oysters.  Of course, Steen being Steen, its detail, exquisite coloration, and dainty sensibility are subsumed by the girl’s provocative glance at us.  Oysters, after all, were thought to be an aphrodisiac, and she invites us to partake with her.  Ooh la la.

The exception to the exhibit’s quiet comes with Steen, too.  Now with his largest work, we get this rare opportunity to see one version of As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young in noisy-person.  I use the painting in my thesis as a prime example of a messy household.  And boy is it.  You just have to go see it.  Its exuberance and abandon are so joyous, so contemporary, so archetypal, so fresh.  The moral lesson may be there, but with a wink and a nod.  Steen places himself at center, looking knowingly at us, as he teaches a boy to smoke a pipe.  Yes, the red parrot in the corner tells us that children will parrot their elders.  So serious.

Jan Steen
As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young
see the artist on the right in the hat grinning at us

But, as stated above, who cares?  How much more important are the joy, the beauty, the quiet of these moments with great art and the worlds they reveal.