Record Crowds Flock to See Ancient, Tiny Bird

‘Goldfinch’ painting draws visitors to normally sleepy New York City museum.  

An ancient little bird is drawing huge crowds to a typically sleepy museum in New York City.

The obvious star of the Frick's exhibition is Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. The masterpiece, after all, inspired Tracy Chevalier's New York Times bestselling novel, which was made into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

But Girl is in something of a popularity contest with a lesser-known work, The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius. The 1654 oil painting is a mere 13 ¼ x 9 inches.

"People are coming to see the Fabritius, most definitely," Heidi Rosenau, the museum's head of media relations and marketing. The Frick has had about 70,000 visitors since the show opened five weeks ago, a "massive" number for one of the city's quieter institutions.

Visitors have been clustering around the painting, says Rosenau, but the real proof of its popularity comes from the museum gift shop. "For every 1,000 Vermeer/Girl with a Pearl Earring postcards we sell, we also sell 800 Goldfinch cards, and that came as a surprise."

Much of the allure is likely thanks to a new novel about the painting. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is fictional account of a young boy who steals the painting from the Met after a terrorist attack. The book—currently number five on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover fiction—happened to hit the market the same day that the exhibition opened.

"The coincidental fact that Donna Tartt's book is also out this fall definitely helped connect the show a large number of her fans," says Rosenau.

The show, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, runs to January 19, 2014.

And for anyone interested in seeing the 350-year-old masterpiece's real-life counterpart today, the bird winters in mainland Europe and resides throughout much of western Eurasia. If you catch sight of a chick, it won't match Fabritius' rendering—the unmistakable vibrant red, black, and white coloration on its head only appears after the juvenile's first molt.

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