Egbert van der Poel Oil on Oak 1654
Around 11:00 AM on October 12, 1654, watchman Cornelius Soetens entered the black powder storage facility in Delft, a former convent, with an unknown visitor. A half an hour later, one quarter of the city was destroyed. An estimated 300 lives were lost, thousands injured. 40 tons of powder (80,000 to 90,000 pounds) exploded, the equivalent of 22.5 tons of TNT.
Known as the Delft Thunderclap (Der Delftse Donderslag), it remains one of the worst non-nuclear explosions in history. It was heard as far as the North Sea, 93 miles away. 200 houses were razed, an additional 300 were damaged. The loss of human life could have been much worse, but many people were attending a fair at The Hague and were not in their homes that morning.
The painting above by Egbert van der Poel was painted contemporaneously. Mostly associated with fiery scenes of Rotterdam, he and his family were living in Delft at the time of the explosion. The destroyed building in the foreground is sometimes misidentified as the powder store, although it is actually a home. Note the people carrying salvaged items. In the center, two men assist a collapsed woman. The space to the right with the open space and sheered trees is actually the scene of the explosion. The building and immediate surrounding area were completely leveled. This may have been a cathartic process for Van den Poel, as at least one source notes he lost his only son in the explosion.
Also tragically lost was Carel Fabritius, often considered the most promising student of Rembrandt. He, along with his student Mattias Spoors and church deacon Simon Decker, were working on a painting together when the event occurred. Although he survived the initial explosion, he died only a few days later from his wounds, as did Spoors and Decker. His studio was completely destroyed, leaving only about a dozen works. Today, only a handful of his paintings survive. He was a mere 32 years old at the time of his death.
A View of Delft was painted in 1652. The large church is Nieuwe Kerk. Two years after this painting was completed, the walls were dislocated and roof and many of the windows collapsed during the explosion. In the painting by Van der Poel it is seen in the background directly behind the ruins of the home.
Known for experimentation with perspective, this painting may have been for a perspective box or “peepshow.” These were kind of like the 3D viewers of the 17 century. A box was built around the painting, often painted to be the exterior of a building. The viewer would look through a small peephole for a view of the interior of a building. This particular painting was probably curved from behind to give the viewer even more of a 3D feeling. Note the curvature of sidewalk.
Mainly because this will most likely be my only blog to feature Carel Fabritius, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a mention of the tiny by great work, The Goldfinch. Although it’s only a 9×13 panel, it packs a big punch and has quickly become one of my favorite paintings over the past few years. Again expressing his interest in perspective, Fabritius shows off his excellent use of trompe-l’oeil to give the box a three-dimensional look. I especially love how the gold perch curves and attaches to the wall on the left side, the shadow perfectly angled to look as if it is actually protruding from the panel.
The bird itself is a beautiful European goldfinch. Its face is perfectly foreshortened with excellent proportions for the beak and eyes. A delicate chain gives the bird little room to move, but the loop attaching the intricate chain to the perch is expertly crafted into a perfect oval. The coloring of the wall behind is really a deviation from his teacher, Rembrandt. Painted the year he died, this painting shows the growth of Fabritius and gives a feel of what he could have been.
His contemporary, the great Dutch master Vermeer, would take up this light coloring of backgrounds after the death of Fabritius. It’s possible they had a teacher student relationship, but there isn’t much evidence. It’s more likely Vermeer was influenced by an already established painter that belonged to the same guild. Upon Vermeer’s death nearly 20 years later, several of Fabritius’ remaining paintings were inventoried as part of his collection.
It was after both of their deaths when Arnold Bon printed a poem by Dirk van Bleyswijck, Beschryvinge der stad Delft (A Description of Delft, 1689) about Carel Fabritius, which in part read:
Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,
In the midst, and at the height of his career,
But fortunately there arose from his fire,
VERMEER who masterfully trod his path.
Read an excellent article about Fabritius and his heavy influence on the School of Delft here: School of Delft
*Description of The View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654 by Van der Poel: Landscape format oil painting. Top two thirds are a dark sky with five flying birds. In the distance, two large churches and the town hall stand erect. In the foreground, several destroyed homes and buildings. At left, a building with only two side walls remain. People in 17th century attire, bent backs, carrying containers from ruins. A collapsed woman is assisted by two men. To the right, a group is gathered in a large empty space surrounded by a circle of debris. A row of white trees are stripped bare.
*Description of A View of Delft by Carel Fabritius: Left side is foreground. Profile of man with downturned moustache and large black hat, right arm bent at elbow, thumb at chin. Next to him, a lute. Right side is the background. A large Gothic church in light stone and grey roof, the Nieuwe Kerk, sits on a corner. The sidewalk curves around it. Blue sky with white puffy clouds above.
*Description of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius: Small blue grey feeder box attached to a light grey wall. Two gold perches surround the box. Attached to the top perch is a ring connected to a chain around the ankle of a small yellow and brown bird. It sits with its body in profile, face turned out. Signed C. Fabritive 1654 at bottom.