A Vanitas Still Life


A Vanitas Still Life, ca. 1620

  • On View

Oil on panel

Dimensions: 17 × 26 in. (43.2 × 66 cm)

Museum purchase, 2008.42

A vanitas is a particular type of still life painting that was immensely popular in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. This work utilizes the emblematic vanitas principle of dependence on text to an extreme degree, having each object accompanied by its own motto of explication. The slip of paper in the lower left carries a command of caution: “Look and pray, or you will face no day of peace.” The vase of flowers, with its central tulip and fallen petals, is labeled “As the beauty of the flower does not last long, a person also quickly fades.” Above the hourglass are the words “Time runs fast, all youthful grace will vanish before one is aware of it.” The skull has the most prominent motto. As if speaking directly to the viewer, it says, “I was as you are now; you will be in the future as I am.” Finally, in the center, the book’s two-page poem refers to all these objects: Oh human being, you are a wandering guest on earth. Flesh is the hay of the Lord, like a garden flower, Which by cultivation reaches a higher level of quality. As a lit candle has to burn, So a man once born must fall into the hands of death.

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