This novel merits serious consideration and stands up to in-depth analysis. It is has 700+ silky pages of narrative in practiced, elegant prose with multiple themes woven through it, primarily; the mesmerizing, redeeming nature of “the line of beauty”; the maniacal nature of the commercial market for art and antiques; the eternal nature of truly sublime art and the fatal, unchangeable, doomed nature of man. Whether Donna Tartt manages to successfully develop and convey all of these ideas in this book is debatable, but ultimately, it is an intriguing novel with interesting premises, posing thought-provoking questions. While the plot revolves around art, it is not a Künstlerroman about an artist’s growth to maturity, but rather a Bildungsroman about an art lover’s growth to maturity, with the 17th century artist, Carl Fabritius, as an ever-present type of Ghost in the Machine.
The book starts with the climactic event of an act of terrorism, which means that Tartt sustains the subsequent action by matching the horror and tension of this event to subsequent happenings. “Theo”, the protagonist, accompanies his mother to a museum in which a bomb explodes. His mother is killed, and the blast damages him psychologically to such an extent that – even if he refers to his condition as extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – he is still a complete train wreck of a human; shallow, selfish, fearful, cowardly, confused, angry, overtly romantic, obsessed. He is an alcoholic, drug user, liar, thief and a fraud. With a few exceptions, his family and friends are not much better. Just as the main character cannot extricate himself from the lingering after-effects of the blast, the tension created in the first few pages reverberates through the novel almost to the end. Considering this, one cannot expect, and does not get, a light, pleasant read.
The fatal, doomed nature of man
After the bomb blast, for hundreds of pages, it is a litany of misery – with Theo falling increasingly deeper into the nine circles of the inferno that was life during the blast, and afterwards. As an orphan he is placed with wealthy people where he feels like an outsider. He gets bullied at school. His father resurfaces after having abandoned his mother and him when he was a small, and takes him away to the most god-forsaken piece of suburbia imaginable. His father proceeds to gamble, drink and do drugs until he dies, and even his father’s girlfriend is a good example of the “Ugly American”. His fiancée, “Katherine (Kitsey)”, is a shallow, pretty, rich girl who cheats on him and gets engaged to him purely for convenience. The girl he loves passionately –injured in the same explosion that killed his mother – has no romantic interest in him. He bums out at college and commits fraud by selling restored furniture as antiques with fake provenances. In the process, he almost ruins the reputation of the one person who shelters, befriends and teaches him about antiques, “Hobie”.
Fixation on a painting
Throughout this life on a downward spiral, Theo is utterly fixated on a small painting that he carried off from the museum immediately after the blast when he was with an old man, “Welty”, who, in his dying moments, begged him to take the painting. And he did, though he was just a boy who had no idea what is was or how valuable it was, and his main concern at the time had been to find his mother. The rest of his life is spent hiding the painting, and trying not to get sent away or be punished for his wrongdoings – imaginary or otherwise. The painting, which actually exists, is “The Goldfinch” (“Het Putterje” in Dutch), by Carel Fabritius (baptised 27 February 1622 – 12 October 1654) a Dutch painter and one of Rembrandt van Rijn’s most gifted pupils.
It now hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery of Mauritshuis, in The Hague (Den Haag), the Netherlands. Theo had simply taken the small painting – it’s only 33.5 x 22.8 cm – and put it in his school bag, and later, wrapped in a pillow-case and pup tent, in storage. His entire life revolves around looking at the picture and finding hope in it, knowing that he has one transcendently beautiful, priceless thing in the world, that is his, and his alone.
The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius
In 1654 Fabritius painted this goldfinch, and the painting is marked by Fabritius’ delicate use of cool colour harmonies, his unerring handling of a loaded brush and his interest in unusual perspectives. These birds were popular house pets in the 17th century, and this one, too, lived in captivity, attached to its perch by a thin chain. The Dutch verb “putten”, meaning to draw water from a “put” or well, gave the bird its nickname, “puttertje”, since it could be trained to drink water from a tiny cup. This painting is one of around fifteen works known to have been made by Fabritius, who died when he was in his thirties. He painted it in 1654, shortly before he died in the explosion of the city of Delft’s powder magazine – a disaster which destroyed a large part of the city. This also connects Theo to the painting, since his both mother and Welty, the old man who asked him to take the painting, died in an explosion.
For such a small work it can be interpreted in many ways. It was presumably conceived as a trompe-l’oeil or early illusionistic painting, made to appear extremely realistic and be hung high on the wall, so as to mistake the bird as real when seen from below the “perch”. It is also a typical example of Dutch still-life painting at its apex in the 17th century “Golden Age” Baroque art. Still-life painting as an independent genre or specialty first flourished in the Netherlands during the early 1600s. This era in Dutch still-life painting is characterised by moralising messages conveyed through the choice of objects – ranging from straightforwardly didactic, such as skulls (life is short, repent!), to subtle clues such as a butterfly (life is fleeting, enjoy it!). Displays of luxury items such as lobsters, roasted birds or legs of meat, pocket watches, luxurious laces and linens, and exotic flowers, alluded both to the temporary nature of pleasures and to the wealth of the person who commissioned the work. Floral still-lifes were especially prominent in the early 1600s, and their highly refined execution, their subjects and symbolism spoke to a cultivated audience who understood their meaning and value.
Fabritius’ goldfinch painting has two messages for the viewer: that living creatures should be free, and that the owner of the bird was wealthy enough to keep it as a pet.
The mesmerizing line of beauty
While Theo’s life is a demonstration of the fatal, unchangeable, doomed nature of man, (“…That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning death) always wins…” (p. 771)) the stream of consciousness descriptions of him being high, drunk, disorientated, desperate and panicked are so well described, they are like word paintings that give you a sympathetic headache by just reading them. Since one internalizes the author’s experience though reading and sub-vocalisation, Tartt managed to give me a really bad trip by reading this novel.
This perception of doomed inevitability is counterbalanced by the mermerizing, redeeming nature of “the line of beauty”; and the eternal nature of truly sublime art in the form of the little “Goldfinch” painting:
“…And I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality…Why am I the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet – for me, anyway – all that’s worth living for lies in that great charm?…What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted –? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance way from health, domesticity, civic responsibility…” (pp. 760, 761)
Here I was reminded of the familiar words of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662),the French mathematician and scientist: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing…We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” They are out of context, but still, lovely words that ring out comfortingly.
Theo is inexorably drawn towards beauty – the painting, the antiques restored by Hobie, and “Pippa”, a girl with whom Theo is obsessed and who is as emotionally damaged by the bomb blast as he is. He comes increasingly close to criminality for the sake of holding on to these beautiful things, eventually ending up in an Amsterdam hotel, an overdosed, semi-conscious wreck. The descriptions of him realizing that his friend, “Boris”, had stolen the painting right from under his nose, and that he had in fact been protecting a bag containing an old school book, are hair-raising. Even more so, with a distinct surreal and menacing tone, is the conversation he has with an American embassy official to get an emergency passport.
The “line of beauty”
Tartt’s descriptions of Theo’s reactions to the “line of beauty” in things are compelling and moving. The “line of beauty” is a term and a theory in art or aesthetics. used to describe an S-shaped curved line (a serpentine line) appearing within an object, as the boundary line of an object, or as a virtual boundary line formed by the composition of several objects. This theory originated with William Hogarth (18th-century English painter, satirist, and writer), and is an essential part of Hogarth’s theory of aesthetics as described in his “Analysis of Beauty” (1753). According to this theory, S-shaped curved lines signify liveliness and activity and excite the attention of the viewer, as contrasted with straight lines, parallel lines, or right-angled intersecting lines, which signify stasis, death, or inanimate objects. The serpentine line should be understood as being found in parts; a composition is created by employing various kinds of lines in various relations to each other without destroying its simplicity.
If an object contains the serpentine line, it becomes beautiful to the observer – a woman’s s-curve, the curves of a man’s muscles in his arm, the yin/yang curve, a gable on a building, the stalk of a flower, the tendril of a fern. As humans, we recognize it and is drawn to it, and we want to possess it. Of course, it is also in the Goldfinch painting, as can be seen on the right – the line leads the eye in a sensual curve from the breast of the little bird, to the side of the perch, echoed in the bracket that holds it to the wall.
The references to the line of beauty runs through the novel, sometimes as subtly as the line of beauty itself – sometimes pronounced, as an expressed desire to stare at, take in and possess a painting, as Theo does: “As the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological status just as random as the street lamps flashing past.” (p. 672)
This visceral reaction to the line of beauty is exceptionally beautifully depicted as the major theme in Allan Hollinghurst’s 2004 Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty – which I personally found tremendously moving and quite unforgettable. (That is worthy of its own review, not merely a mention.) Tartt, by contrast, sublimates this theme amongst many others in the book, and the over-riding memory for me was of a great deal of descriptions of ugly, confused events, people and places, somewhat mitigated by the uplifting references to the theme of beauty.
The strange world of art dealers and collectors
Ultimately, Tartt chooses a positive resolution for Theo’s problems. Theo has what Tartt calls his “Damascus” moment, his epiphany, when he dreams of his mother after getting involved in a shoot-out over the painting in Amsterdam, and trying to kill himself. He wakes up alive and decides – on Christmas Day no less – to clean up his life. Boris, in the meantime, steals the painting back, but returns it to the museum for a large reward, and the money allows Theo to buy back the antiques he had sold with fake provenances. I thought the final chapter, the denouement, was unnecessarily long and declamatory, and the solution to Theo’s problems too convenient and not altogether convincing – in contrast to the rest of the novel which is thoroughly authentic.
Nevertheless, in real life, stranger things have happened to stolen art.
A case of a stolen art hoard
For instance, there is the strange case of the discovery, in the spring of 2012, of stolen art consisting of 1,401 pictures – including 121 framed and 1,285 unframed in Munich, Germany, in the apartment of an eccentric 80-year-old recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt. Many of the paintings appear to be among those the Nazis once confiscated from German museums as “degenerate art”. Others were probably stolen by the Nazis from Jews or other private owners. With their provenance unclear, investigators have kept the art but did not make their discovery public until November 2013. The works can now been identified on a website for identification, but so far Gurlitt has not been accused of any crime since he was originally investigated only for tax evasion. The items include works by Edvard Munch, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Liebermann and Pablo Picasso, amongst other masters of European art, and are estimated to be worth £850 million.
“In 1998 Germany and 43 other countries signed the Washington Principles pledging to search their public collections for looted art in order to restitute it. But that does not cover cases of “degenerate art”, which the Nazis took out of state-owned German museums under a 1938 law, which Germany has, amazingly, never officially annulled. Nor does it cover private stashes such as Mr Gurlitt’s. Whatever Germany does now, Mr Gurlitt’s case remains vexing. His father, Hildebrand, was one of four traders the Nazis commissioned to deal in “degenerate” or looted art, which makes the provenance of at least some of it questionable. After his death in 1956, his wife told at least one big lie, claiming that the collection was destroyed in the Dresden firebombing. Mr Gurlitt inherited it in 1967. He may thus be saved by a statute of limitations of 30 years…”
While missing masterpieces may be recovered once in a blue moon, the more likely outcome of Theo’s lost painting is that it would have been bartered, destroyed and disappeared for ever, and that Theo would’ve ended up dead in an alley from an overdose. Interestingly, Gurlitt seems to be driven by the same lust to possess beautiful paintings as Theo – in that sense, they are two of a kind;
“…in a rambling interview last month he [Gurlitt] said the works were rightly his – and that he loved them all. ‘I will not give anything back voluntarily,’ said Mr Gurlitt. ‘I hope this gets resolved soon and I finally get my pictures back. ‘I’ve never committed a crime, and even if I had, it would fall under the statute of limitations. If I were guilty, they would put me in prison.’ He added: ‘I just wanted to live with my paintings.’”
The powerful magnetism of beautiful things
Tartt convincingly demonstrates how people are so drawn to beautiful things that they will ultimately resort to criminality to possess them. Theo’s buyers want the beautiful antiques, even though they know the provenance of the pieces are fake. They become victims to “swizzlers”, “sharpers”, “knockers” – crooks who persuade old people to part with their family heirlooms for next to nothing and then resell the pieces at profit.
Reading these sections, I was reminded of the highly entertaining, semi-non-fiction account of the insanity of orchid collectors, “Orchid Fever”, by Eric Hansen (2000), and the fascinating biography “I was Vermeer”, by Frank Wynne (2006), the story of Han van Meegeren, who was a mediocre artist but an excellent forger of the works of the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. You can almost not believe that people, specifically the Nazi’s top echelon in The Netherlands during the second World War, would believe that the poor imitations he had created were real Vermeers. But there is no explaining people’s greed and avarice when it comes to possessing masterpieces, and the ends to which they will go to prove their paintings are genuine. (The BBC1’s “Fake Or Fortune” series, cashes in on this, in the process teaching viewers useful things about the authentication process.)
Tartt describes this desire, this love affair with beautiful paintings like this:
“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes, you.” You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, …it’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any deep way at all but – a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.” (p. 758)
The painting that whispered to Theo was the same one that whispered to the old man, Welty, as he lay dying in the museum in the noise, smoke and rubble of the blast. It turns out that when Welty had been a child a copy of the painting had hung in his home. In his dying moments he had reached out to that one thing that symbolised happiness to him.
“The interesting thing, in the photograph, was how the fragile little knock-kneed boy – smiling sweetly, pristine in his sailor suit – was also the old man who’d clasped my hand while he was dying: two separate frames, superimposed upon each other, of the same soul. And the painting, above his head, was the still point where it all hinged; dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.” (p. 755)
Drawn to a “cloud of unspeakable radiance”
Ultimately, Theo is convinced that life is horrible and people are doomed, except if, for some reason they find themselves drawn along by that “cloud of unspeakable radiance” which they cannot resist. In his case, it is “The Goldfinch”:
“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. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of the people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generations of lovers, and the next. (Last words, p. 771)
Roughly the same sentiment is voiced by Edmund de Waal, in his memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, but Tartt reaches her conclusion by describing years of drawn-out misery in the life of someone who cannot let go of the disasters and guilt of the past, yet finds redemption and peace of mind in one exquisite remnant of the very past to which he is chained like a goldfinch to its perch.
About the author
Donna Tartt is primarily known for the three novels she has produced thus far, but what she has done has been extremely well received. Her novels are The Secret History (1992), The Little Friend (2002), and The Goldfinch (2013). She won the WH Smith Literary Award for The Little Friend in 2003. The original print-run of 75,000 copies of The Secret History sold out and it became a bestseller, translated into 24 languages.