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ART CULTURE: Indulgence & Vanity- Haunting Dutch Still Life Paintings

By Lindsey Christina 

still life by: Jacques de Gheyn Elder

still life by: Jacques de Gheyn Elder

Jacques de Gheyn the Elder was an artist who lived and travelled over much of the Netherlands where he would develop an aptitude for engraving and printmaking, much like his father. He was motivated as a draftsman to capture realistic depictions of nature including insects, flowers, domestic scenes, trees, plants, town-scapes, landscapes, rodents, people, and animals. De Gheyn produced an astonishing amount of drawings and prints during his lifetime. “The four hundred thirty prints known to have been executed by De Gheyn seem more remarkable in number than the approximately fifteen hundred drawings that have been catalogued, given the laborious nature of engraving and the fact he was a printmaker for little more than fifteen years.” With De Gheyn’s unlimited amount of knowledge and talent for realism, he produced in 1603 Vanitas Still Life. Vanitas Still Life is oil on wood panel, a deviation from his previous artistic methods. It is believed to be the “earliest known vanitas still life to have been painted in the Netherlands.” Vanitas is a category of still-life paintings that that increased in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. A vanitas painting will include items representative of the predictability of death and the temporariness and narcissism of material triumphs and desires. 

The composition created by De Gheyn includes the central subject, the skull, which is surrounded by other elements: a flower, coins, a translucent sphere, and other sculptural or stone architectural backdrops. At the left top portion of the panel leans Democritus who points towards the sphere and laughs. At the right is Heraclitus, who is also pointing to the transparent circular object, however, he cries. “The sphere purposefully resembles a soap bubble, the familiar vanitas motif that suggests the emptiness and transience of human life.” Based on previous comparisons made by authors during this time period and before, Democritus is considered to be mocking mankind, whereas Heraclitus has a more mournful response to the world. 

Trimmed flowers and smoke are also included in De Gheyn’s composition and are typical symbols in vanitas pieces. “The painted flowers are a red-and-yellow flamed tulip (a luxury item) and a field rose, one petal of which has fallen on the sill (where chips and cracks also suggest the ravages of time).” Present-day observers of vanitas still lifes would have referenced biblical scriptures associating human life with the smoke and flowers, however, Ingvar Bergstrom who wrote as extensive article on this painting believed that an obvious allusion to salvation, Christ, or spiritual life was not intended in this piece. 

In the sphere, or bubble, there are many different figures or objects that are unclear. According to a diagram completed by Bergstrom, on the top of the bubble, there appears to be a ball or bell-like item hanging; in the upper portion of the sphere there is a crown with swords at the sides; there are drinking vessels; playing cards, a wagon wheel, and a backgammon board. If Berstrom’s interpretation of the items in the bubble is accurate there is a central theme that is paramount to the interpretation of this painting; all are representations of vanity. “All is vanity: earthly possessions, authority, pleasures, desires. The crown with swords signifies power and glory. The caduceus, if there, probably refers to commerce, the bellows success or good fortune. Playing cards, a backgammon board, and drinking glasses would be expected attributes of pleasure and idelness. The flaming heart must symbolize earthly love.” 

Lastly, at the bottom of the composition is money or coins which in this moment can be representative of “the root of all evil.” All of the coins in this work can easily be identified as coins that were used as currency in the Netherlands at the time this work was created. There are also, however, coins on the right and left that would have been rare during the artists lifetime. De Gheyn models this coins in this still life accurately. In the center-right of the lower composition are two medals commemorating the Dutch war of independence.  I believe, in the context of vanitas still lifes, it is most important to note in regards to these medals are the inscriptions just below De Gheyn’s signature and the skull. “NON SVFFICIT ORBIS (The world is not enough) and QVO SALTAS INSEQVAR (Where you go, I will follow).” Based on the evidence in the painting and the political happenings at the time this painting was created, it is believe that if this work was created for a specific individual, it would have been for Prince Maurits. “It may be assumed that Prince Maurits received one of the Zeeland medals, or a number of them.” In the early 1600’s, the reflection of life, death and, fragileness  were common in Dutch art because of what was happening in the world at the time of De Gheyn’s Vanitas Still Life. 

still life by: Jan Davidsz De Heem 

still life by: Jan Davidsz De Heem 

Jan Davidsz De Heem was another Dutch artist in the seventeenth century that was inclined to painting the still life. A Banqueting Scene, although it was speculated that this work was not his own, paints a landscape of a banquet in 1640. On the table, we see many objects that are all, except one, dated to the first half of the seventeenth century. This fact, in addition to the stamp “JDH” leads us to believe that Jan Davidsz De Heem is the true painter of this work. This is a chaotic scene where we can see grapes, which may pay tribute to wine or Bacchus, a lobster, glass vessels, peaches, green walnuts, a silver-gilt basin, and a large clock. The clock is meant to be viewed as a vanitas motif. I believe that the comparison between De Gheyn’s Vanitas Still Life and De Heem’s A Banqueting Scene can be quite simple. De Heem shows all the luxurious items that are spilling across this table which reflect self-indulgence and the importance of possessions, however, the clock in and of itself brings a new interpretation to the scene. The clock as a representation of the passage of time echoes De Gheyn’s slowing wilting flowers and skull. The clock serves as a haunting reminder that all possessions and values are temporary as death and destruction is forthcoming.

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Have your eyes been opened to perceiving art in a whole new way? Are you inspired to go to the Birmingham Art Museum and explore a whole new world? Got any art composition questions for #LindseyChristina? Sound off in the comments! 

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