(b. 1622, Middenbeemster, d. 1654, Delft)


Oil on canvas, 70,5 x 61,5 cm
National Gallery, London

This resolute likeness most probably represents Carel Fabritius only months before he was fatally wounded in his studio in Delft by the explosion of a gunpowder magazine on 12 October 1654. (The aftermath of the disaster is recorded in a painting by Egbert van der Poel also in the National Gallery.) The son of a schoolmaster and Sunday painter who may have taught him the rudiments of the art, Fabritius studied with Rembrandt between around 1641 and 1643. Only eight certainly authentic works by him survive. The National Gallery is fortunate in owning two: this portrait, and a curious small View of Delft which may have formed part of a perspective box or peepshow. Fabritius is also recorded as having made illusionistic perspective wallpaintings, but none is known.

Fabritius proved to be Rembrandt's most gifted and original pupil. At the time of his death at 32 he had already evolved a style and technique at variance with his teacher's. While Rembrandt normally - although not invariably - set his sitters in light against a dark background, Fabritius's silhouette looms starkly against a cloudy sky impastoed white highlights on the metal thrusting the cuirass forward in space. His preparation of the canvas was also quite different. Rembrandt preferred a double ground, a cool grey superimposed over orange-red; analysis has shown that the single ground of this picture is a light cream colour.

Rembrandt had painted himself wearing a military breastplate or gorget - a collarlike piece of armour - in the late 1620s and 1630s, and this became a popular type of self portrait among his pupils. Its significance has been much debated, some scholars arguing that it suggests Dutch patriotism, a readiness to champion the homeland's hard-won independence, others denying that any such topical meaning could have been intended. Military armour, like pastoral costume, Italian Renaissance or Burgundian dress, was thought to be less susceptible to the vagaries of fashion than civilian outdoor wear, and thus more 'timeless'. Fabritius's fur cap also seems anachronistic, its shape closer to the outline of sixteenth-century headgear than to contemporary hats. But perhaps Rembrandt's invention of a timeless or heroic type of portrait had a more personal significance for Fabritius.

His surname, sometimes used by his father and adopted by the artist by 1641, is derived from the Latin word faber, meaning manual workman, and was applied to smiths, building workers and carpenters. Fabritius worked as a carpenter before entering Rembrandt's studio, and a probable self portrait of about 1648-9 showing him in coarse working dress (now in Rotterdam) has been interpreted as alluding both to his former occupation and to his name. 'Fabritius' has, however, another, altogether grander significance. C(aius) Fabritius or Fabricius was a soldier and consul of the Roman republic, celebrated for frugality, courage and integrity. His story was familiar from Plutarch's account, and a fellow student in Rembrandt's studio was later to paint an episode from his life in Amsterdam Town Hall. The last records of C(arel) Fabritius in Delft speak of mounting debts but growing professional recognition. If the Rotterdam picture depicts Fabritius/faber the craftsman-painter, might not the National Gallery portrait recall the man of whom Virgil wrote 'Fabricius, poor, yet a prince'?