A 362-year-old painting of a tiny bird has become one of the most popular of its time. But will we ever know what The Goldfinch means? Alastair Sooke takes a closer look.

On the face of it, it couldn’t be simpler: a small, charming painting, on a wooden panel, depicting a goldfinch perched on its feeding-box, seen against a whitewashed wall. There, at the bottom, the signature of the artist, “C Fabritius”, is clearly visible in grey paint, along with the picture’s date: 1654.

For art historians, this information makes the painting invaluable, because Carel Fabritius (1622-54) was an important artist of the Dutch Golden Age. During the 1640s, he trained in Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam. Then, in 1650, he moved to Delft – the home town of Johannes Vermeer – where he died, tragically young, in an explosion at a gunpowder warehouse close to his house.

Many scholars believe that Fabritius was the missing link between Rembrandt and Vermeer

It is likely that most of his work was destroyed at the same time, and today only around a dozen paintings are attributed to him. Even so, some scholars believe that Fabritius was the link between Rembrandt and Vermeer, whom he may have taught (although there is no hard evidence for this).

Whatever the truth about Fabritius’s relationship with Vermeer, what is certain is that, today, The Goldfinch is one of the most celebrated paintings in the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague – second in terms of popularity, probably, only to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Moreover, of course, it recently inspired Donna Tartt’s novel of the same name. Her bestselling, 800-page Bildungsroman, published in 2013, is narrated by a character who, as a 13-year-old boy, walks off with the painting in the chaos following a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is part of a temporary exhibition of Dutch masterpieces. Because of Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Fabritius’s Goldfinch is now more famous than ever.

Pet theories

So far, so straightforward. The thing is, the more we think about The Goldfinch, and try to understand it within the context of 17th-Century Dutch art, the more mysterious it becomes. Even simple questions about it prove impossible to answer definitively, such as why did Fabritius paint it? How was it originally displayed? And what, if anything, did it mean?

In a funny way, though, the fact that The Goldfinch poses so many riddles is part of its appeal. An ongoing display at the National Galleries of Scotland, to which the painting has been lent for six weeks, provides a welcome excuse to consider this art-historical conundrum afresh.

One thing we do know is that goldfinches were already pets in antiquity: Pliny, for instance, mentions their ability to perform dexterous tricks. They can be taught to open their own feeding-boxes, or to draw up drinking water with a small bucket the size of a thimble on a chain. This gave rise, as early as the 16th Century, to the bird’s nickname in Dutch: het puttertje, from putten, which means to draw water from a well.

“They are intelligent birds and they sing beautifully, especially the males,” explains Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis. “So they were very popular pets.” Occasionally, goldfinches, along with elaborate bird-houses, appear in 17th Century Dutch paintings by, for instance, Gerrit Dou (1613-75).

“But what’s unusual about Fabritius’s painting,” continues Gordenker, “is that it is, as it were, a portrait. Before Fabritius, you find birds in genre paintings and landscapes, as well as dead birds in still lives. But to see one isolated in this way is revelatory. And when you combine that with the incredibly vivacious painting technique, you get something unprecedented.”

Free as a bird

One striking aspect of The Goldfinch is the simplicity, even austerity, of the composition. Yes, the bird is chained – a detail which meant that, in other Dutch paintings, they could be symbols of captive love. But everything else about the picture is surprisingly bare: the simple feeding-box is unadorned, except for a couple of semi-circular bars, while the plastered wall in the background is entirely blank, serving to enhance the drama of the shadow cast by the bright light in the picture. (That said, Gordenker tells me: “I have never encountered an artist who can paint a white wall so eloquently.”)

Fabritius was certainly painting an exercise in trompe l’oeil – he wanted to fool the eye

According to Gordenker, sometimes in art history the goldfinch, like the pelican, had Christian “overtones”, thanks to the flash of red on its face, which was understood as a reference to Christ’s blood. But there aren’t any attributes to reinforce that association here. Similarly, theories that the painting was once a shop sign – perhaps that of The Hague bookseller and wine merchant Cornelis de Putter (playing on the bird’s Dutch nickname) – feel far-fetched.

Technical analysis of The Goldfinch, conducted in 2003 ahead of an exhibition about Fabritius at the Mauritshuis, provided tantalising results. The panel was probably sawn from a larger piece of wood. Moreover, it was once covered by a gilded frame, attached with 10 nails. It’s possible that the painting was part of a piece of furniture (could it have been a door to a cabinet set high on a wall?), or another type of larger structure, such as an amusing ‘cage’ for a painted bird, rather than a real one. Maybe it served as a protective cover for another painting altogether, which would have been encased. The trouble is, Gordenker says, we can’t substantiate any of these hypotheses.

What, then, are we left with? A painting of a bird that, when seen from a distance, is remarkably realistic. Ultimately, perhaps, this illusionism is the key: Fabritius was surely painting an exercise in trompe l’oeil (to use an anachronistic term): he wanted to fool the eye.

“There’s a tension there,” Gordenker explains. “On the one hand, goldfinches were prized and therefore kept on chains. On the other, here’s one that is so realistic, it looks like it is about to fly away.”

What is particularly special about The Goldfinch is the innovative way Fabritius achieved this brilliant sense of realism. Look closely at the thick stripe of lead-tin yellow on the goldfinch’s black wing, and you will notice that the artist scratched it with the butt of his brush while the paint was still wet. In other words, he was working with vigour, at speed, in a breathtaking display of bravura technique, deliberately foregrounded by the composition’s simplicity.

“It isn’t just a matter of outlining a wing or an eye,” Gordenker says. “Rather, there are bold, free brushstrokes, which have real texture to them. That makes the illusion even more incredible. Fabritius was anticipating the freedom of 19th-Century painters.”

Of course, the irony is that, following his death, Fabritius tumbled into obscurity for two centuries: he was only rediscovered, along with Vermeer, by a French art critic during the 19th Century. Perhaps he would have consolidated his reputation beyond Delft if he hadn’t died so young. “The Goldfinch is an incredibly appealing image,” Gordenker says. “But there’s also that mystique of, ‘What if Fabritius had painted more? What else would he have done? What direction would he have taken?’”

Alastair Sooke is art critic and columnist of the Daily Telegraph.

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