The True Stories & Eerie Coincidences That Surround The Goldfinch‘s Theo Decker

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Brother Pictures.
The Goldfinch movie is based on a Pulitzer-winning tome of 771 very immersive, detailed pages by Donna Tartt. The kind of reverence that the subject inspires, the big-name cast The Goldfinch attracted (Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman), and the hand-wringing over its faithful adaptation might have you wondering if this really could all be for a fictional story about fictional people. Could it be that Elgort's bespectacled protagonist Theo Decker is based on a real person after all?
"The Goldfinch" itself, a.k.a. "Het puttertje", is a real painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius from 1654. It hangs in the Hague museum Mauritshuis, which is no doubt very happy that Theodore Decker is not a real person. It's also a complete fiction that this painting was ever on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art during a terrorist attack. (We're very happy the terrorist attack is also fictional, FWIW.) But there were a great number of real-life events that seem to have influenced Tartt when she was writing the book, published in 2013. There were also a number of surprising coincidences that connected the book to real life after she put her pen to paper.
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Another Decker, Two Different Explosions
In interviews at the time of the book's release, Tartt said that the germ of her idea began back in February 2001, when the Taliban destroyed the giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
“That was the pre-shock before 9/11. And it was really, really disturbing to me," she told the Telegraph.
A couple of years later, Tartt visited Amsterdam, where she saw a copy of "The Goldfinch" in a house sale. She was immediately drawn to the image of the chained little bird. The two ideas joined in her mind, and she began the long process of writing her book.
It wasn't until she'd already begun to write that she learned that The Goldfinch had in fact survived an explosion, just after it was painted in 1654. Fabritius was living and working in his hometown of Delft, where 90,000 lbs of gunpowder accidentally exploded and destroyed the centre of the city. Tartt decided to have Theo learn this story as he looks at the painting with his mother at the Met.
"It was a famous tragedy in Dutch history,' my mother was saying. 'A huge part of the town was destroyed.'"
The painter was one of the explosion's victims. So, too, was much of Fabritius' work, with rare exceptions like "The Goldfinch." One of the paintings that didn't survive was what he was working on at the time: a portrait of church deacon Simon Decker. And no, Tartt didn't know that detail until after she'd chosen Theo's last name.
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One more coincidence that thrilled Tartt? On the very date of The Goldfinch's release in the U.S., an exhibition of Dutch masters that included "The Goldfinch" opened at the Frick museum in New York. The New York Times confirmed that the exhibit's curators were completely unaware of Tartt's pub date.
A Very Theo-Decker-Like Art Thief
Meanwhile, in France, a man named Patrick Vialaneix suffering torture of his own making. Back in 1999, when he was working as an alarm technician, he hatched a plan to steal a Rembrandt painting called Child With a Soap from the Municipal Museum of Draguignan, according to Art Net. He said it was because he fell in love with the painting when he was 13, because he thought the boy looked so much like him. On Bastille Day, when festivities and security helicopters were too loud for anyone to hear the alarm he'd set off, he snatched the painting and took it home.
What happened next sounds so much like what Theo underwent in his years of having his own stolen masterpiece. Like his fictional counterpart, Vialaneix kept the painting in his room under his bed, carefully wrapped up. He could peek at it from time to time, but he was constantly paranoid about its safety, as well as natural threats like termites, fire, and moisture. He moved from house to house to assuage these fears.
“I became its guardian but also its hostage," he later said. This sounds just like Theo, who made major life decisions based on whether he could keep the painting safe.
In 2014, Vialaneix finally decided to end his misery and sell the painting to two crooks posing as insurance agents. They were arrested the second they tried to sell it on the black market. Vialaneix then confessed to the police, discovering to his immense relief that the statute of limitations had passed. Also, some suspected that it was never a Rembrandt after all.
So, no, Theo Decker has never existed, and The Goldfinch is no docudrama. But it certainly seems like where the art world is concerned, there's a lot of truth that's even stranger than fiction.
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