Part homage to her father and part critical study of Dutch painting, Cumming’s genre-spanning book is first and foremost a biography. Its elegiac meanderings return time and time again to the figure of Carel Fabritius ... [A] tender reading ... Cumming’s gentle, meditative prose is itself an evocation of the hushed world of the art she loves. Her writing is soft and Sebaldian, with long, lulling sentences. And of course it contains a whole gallery of verbal images, in addition to pictures of paintings.
Genre-defying ... Cumming suggests that we recall the past through pictures ... Cumming clearly loves these paintings, and by weaving together vivid evocations of ones that particularly move her with brief biographies of the men and women who painted them, she invites us to share that love ... Like all good elegists, Cumming, too, brings the dead to life in the very act of mourning them.
In one brief essay-like chapter after another, the author recounts her own adventures in art, weaving together vignettes and memories of her father, anecdotes about her career as an art critic, and observations and analyses of the lives and works of 17th-century Dutch artists ... Wondrous ... Its thunderclap still echoes in my ears.
Cumming...draws us into another mystery that fascinates her: that of the brief life of the genius Fabritius, the painter of The Goldfinch, the chained bird that stares back at us from its prison of a perch ... Cumming is a word-painter, mixing vocabulary as deftly as Spoors mixed the pigments ... Excellent.
A book of yearning ... Cumming’s descriptions of what is in front of her eyes (or what she can conjure in her imagination, when conveying artists’ worlds) are often incandescently beautiful, and well informed. Defending Dutch still lifes, for instance, she does justice to their brilliance ... Cumming has a special ability to transport her readers, presenting historical facts and scientific developments as the marvels they are. Her curiosity is infectious—you don’t have to love Dutch art to love this book, though you may well come away with a renewed sense of its value.
The book transpires to be neither a grave-to-cradle nor a cradle-to-grave biography of Fabritius, but rather a lyrical contemplation of his life’s work, the culture of the Dutch Golden Age and Cumming’s memories of her father ... Suspense over the fates of her father and Fabritius is withheld in favour of a more dreamlike exploration of what made both men feel alive, beginning with their ability to see. Imagery of the eye pervades the book, which is, in contrast to its title, quietly meditative ... I was distracted by the occasional fey sentiment...but this is nitpicking over a book that often borders on the sublime in its sentiment and beauty. The reproductions of paintings throughout make it physically, too, a thing of splendour.
Cumming writes with the sureness of carefully laid paint. This is not art historical scholarship of the academic kind – there are no footnotes or references to sources beyond her own feelings and intuition. It is an emotionally informed approach to art, always paying attention to the fact that each person’s vision is different (one of her daughters goes colour-blind as she is writing this book, having stared too long at the sun). Cumming cannot in truth show us new definitive facts about Carel Fabritius, but she brings him out of the shadows, making us see why he is so much more than the missing link in someone else’s story.
Cumming articulates why we are so magnetically drawn to certain paintings, even when their painters are long gone ... In asking why we return to paintings across decades, and centuries, this book gave me a chance to see anew.
Alongside the story of Fabritius and Cumming’s father, Thunderclap offers a fascinating insight into Dutch painting and broader Netherlandish society through its paintings, from housing to infrastructure, poverty and family life ... There is a connective line between Thunderclap and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing in imploring us to look, and look again. Cumming urges the reader to reconsider paintings they admired, no matter how familiar, to find something new, often spurred to this by events in her own life ... Cumming [has] created an investigative, thought-provoking space, reminding us that looking at a great work of art can begin a lifelong thunderclap of obsession.
For Laura Cumming, Dutch art is a placid paradise with the countdown to a cataclysm ticking away in the background. ... I won’t spoil the deductive climax, except to say it gives off a brilliant flash of imaginative ignition as the book’s two opposed ideas electrically connect. When I read Cumming’s last paragraph, the baleful rumble of the Delft disaster became an outburst of delighted, admiring laughter.
If this sounds as though Thunderclap is doing too many things, the author blends these elements seamlessly, in the process revealing as much about her own relationship to art as the work itself ... As well as a paean to an artistic movement, Thunderclap is a love letter to Fabritius, whom history has neglected; to Cumming’s father, whose life, like Fabritius’s, ended too early; and to the very act of looking.
Cumming delivers a keen-eyed defense of Dutch painting, as a whole, which some art historians have written off as 'just transcriptions of nature,' at best, or 'just depictions of trivial stuff,' when they’re feeling spiteful. Finally, Thunderclap is a memoir, a loving and moving recounting of Cumming’s own love affair with Dutch painting and the importance it’s played in her life, most notably as a connection to her father, the Scottish painter James Cumming ... This fluctuation between history, memoir and philosophical reverie continues throughout Thunderclap, impossible to unravel. Once Cumming establishes her affection for Fabritius and the importance his paintings have played in her life, her biography of the painter begins in earnest. She applies her powerful skills as a biographer to reassemble the scant details of Fabritius’ life into a serviceable history of the painter’s tragically short life. Even more importantly, she uses them to paint a detailed portrait of Delft in the 17th-Century, a Golden Age of art and artists ... The back-and-forth between history, biography and memoir is not without its shortcomings, though. Some of Cumming’s asides can feel slightly random, adding little to the otherwise driving narrative...These random asides can sometimes feel like losing the plot. More so, they feel like the musings of someone who’s made art their life to the point it’s impossible to extricate the two. The beauty of Thunderclap‘s layered narrative is that even if one aspect isn’t your absolute favorite, you won’t have to wait long to yet again strike gold.
This is not a biography of Fabritius. Such a feat would be nigh impossible as he seems to glide on the edge of history. Where Cumming truly excels is in the defense of Dutch art ... In her meticulous reading of Fabritius and other Dutch artists, there is a strange sense of transcendence, of hats becoming haloes and peaches planetary bodies ... This is a remarkable book. I would not say it “educates and entertains”, because though I learned a lot, the overarching sky is cloudy, lowering and melancholy. Cumming ought to be allowed to write about any topic in any way, although her art criticism is always precise and unexpected.