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Friday Book Design Blog: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Jonathan Gibbs

goldfinch large 194x300 Friday Book Design Blog: The Goldfinch by Donna TarttWell, we have a date and title for Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, out this October, and we have the cover.

Who is it by? The press release doesn’t say, and as of now neither an extended internet hunt nor an email to the publisher has yielded results, although a #twitterhelpme call-out informs me (thank you, @mendelsund) that it’s not by US book design legend Chip Kidd, who was involved with the (US) covers for Tartt’s two previous books, The Secret History and The Little Friend.

[Update: Little, Brown inform me the cover design is by in-house art director Keith Hayes. And, to be fair, my original email went out just before 05/04/2013]

What we can say, however, is something about the image that is being uncovered in this elegant trompe l’oeil jacket: it is Goldfinch (1654) by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-54), a pupil of Rembrandt and reputed teacher of Vermeer, who was killed in by the Great Delft Explosion – when a gunpowder store in the city blew up.

The small painting (little bigger than an A4 sheet of paper) shows the bird stood on a small platform, to which is it chained, the platform attached to the wall. Themes of captivity and escape, suffering and human-animal relationships all suggest themselves.

Carel Fabritius The Goldfinch 197x300 Friday Book Design Blog: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt The work as a whole is itself a trompe l’oeil, fooling people in the first split second of apprehension that the bird is real, though I guess it would be too much to suggest that the book jacket itself will double that trick, fashionable though that is in publishing – a jacket with a torn ‘keyhole’ looking through to the complete image underneath would be, let us say, impractical.

I recognised the image the moment I saw it, not from the original painting, but from another book cover, ‘Reads’ a collection of essays by Brigid Brophy, the British novelist, critic and campaigner (on animal rights, among other things) who died in 1995. (Brophy is not quite forgotten: her King of a Rainy Country has been reissued by Coelocanth Press, and Faber’s print-on-demand imprint Faber Finds will be releasing others of her back catalogue later this year.)

The picture is there on the front because of an essay inside, on Fabritius’s painting, in which Brophy speculates about the possible reasons for its composition – as a trompe l’oeil directed not at the human eye, she suggests, but at another bird – the bird painted in the picture in fact, a portrait that could then be hung on the wall across the room to, what? Fool the bird? Entertain it? Keep it company?

friday brigid brophy reads 196x300 Friday Book Design Blog: The Goldfinch by Donna TarttReverting to Tartt, however, we do have a small amount of information from her publisher to tease and get us excited. This, from her editor:

Like Donna Tartt’s previous novels “The Secret History” and “The Little Friend,” “The Goldfinch” is built around an enormous mystery while at the same time exploring the deepest moral and philosophical questions. The cover suggests a central moment in the story, which I can’t give away here!

And from the publisher’s description:

A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by a friend’s family and struggles to make sense of his new life. In the years that follow, he becomes entranced by one of the few things that reminds him of his mother: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the art underworld

So, is the painting in the book actually the Fabritius? (The real painting is housed, quite happily, in the Mauritshuis gallery in the Hague.) The mention of the art underworld could mean that the painting Theo has is the real Goldfinch, which has either been stolen from the gallery, or else the one in the gallery is a copy or fake.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, in a short piece on Fabritius and his Goldfinch, talks of the painter as inverting the style of Rembrandt: where the Dutch master reveled in chiaroscuro, in conjuring vision from the shadows, Fabritus worked in light, and on the action of colour and vision in light.

Is there something in this that might give us a way in to this book that, surely, many of us are going to be reading come Autumn? A journey from the light into dark (the plain white paper in which the painting is purportedly wrapped on the book jacket only replaces, after all, the bare expanse of the wall in the painting itself), a stolen painting, small enough almost for a boy to carry around with him, a thing of beauty imprisoned, set free, by itself or someone else?


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