A Silencer

Is it possible a still life painting makes you still inside? To me it does. Do you like museums? I do. And wandering in a museum I sometimes stop in front of a still life and try to be as motionless as the painting itself observing all the hundreds and hundreds of details.

A still life is a an allegory, a symbolic representation without living beings. The painter’s focus is on the composition, the use of colour and tone. A still life is therefore a work of study. Still life paintings in the Dutch Golden Age are famous because of the reproduction of the materials used and the objects in the painting. The object is diverse. Often used were food and fruit, flowers or a wine glass.
In many still life paintings it doesn’t matter if the objects are in the forefront or the background, the composition is painted in equal detail.

Flower still life

The still life painting with flowers were very popular in the 17th centuary. Flowers are transistory,  like life is and is also symbol for vanity. Flowers are beautiful, but in fact dead already when they were put in a vase. They are short-lived. And a symbol for human emotions. They have every aspect of the 17th Centuary Dutch morals: Calvinism was the mainstream of religions in those days.

The accuracy of the objects in the painting is characteristic of the composition. To the painter it was an opportunity to display his abilities. Flowers are not seasonal anymore (we load them in a plane and bring them to your flower store), but in the 17th centuary the artist had to wait until the flowers were in full bloom. Besides, they were very expensive.

Tulip book

In the Golden Age tulip books were quite common. Those albums contained hundreds of tulips drawn in great detail. We know that famous painters used those albums and were able to paint a vase of flowers that contains flowers that didn’t bloom at the same time. Not obvious to us anymore, but a 17th centuary citizen would have noticed at once.
Flower paintings were not very popular anymore, until the impressionism period and Van Gogh f.i. painted his sunflower paintings.

Vanitas still life

Vanitas, ( from the Latin word “vanity” ) in art, a genre of still-life painting that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it appeals to the viewer to consider mortality and to repent. The vanitas evolved from simple pictures of skulls and other symbols of death.  It had acquired an independent status by c. 1550 and by 1620 had become a popular genre. Its development until its decline about 1650 was centred in Leiden, in the United Provinces of the Netherlands, an important seat of Calvinism, which emphasized humanity’s total depravity and advanced a rigid moral code.

Although a few vanitas pictures include figures, the vast majority are pure still lifes, containing certain standard elements: symbols of arts and sciences (books, maps, and musical instruments), wealth and power (purses, jewelry, gold objects), and earthly pleasures (goblets, pipes, and playing cards); symbols of death or transience (skulls, clocks, burning candles, soap bubbles, and flowers); and, sometimes, symbols of resurrection and eternal life (usually ears of corn or sprigs of ivy or laurel). The earliest vanitas pictures were sombre, somewhat monochromatic compositions of great power, containing only a few objects (usually books and a skull) executed with elegance and precision. As the century progressed, other elements were included, the mood lightened, and the palette became diversified. Objects were often tumbled together in disarray, suggesting the eventual overthrow of the achievements they represent. Somewhat ironically, the later vanitas paintings became largely a pretext for meticulous virtuosity in the rendering of varied textures and surfaces, but the artistic quality of the genre in no sense declined. Several of the greatest Dutch still-life painters, including David Bailly, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Willem Claesz Heda, Pieter Potter, and Harmen and Pieter van Steenwyck, were masters of the vanitas still life, and the influence of the genre can be seen in the iconography and technique of other contemporary painters, including Rembrandt.

Vanitas (Heda)


6 thoughts on “Vanity

  1. I long , that for once, I will allow myself to an entire day just strolling through a great museum in a major capital city. Myself. Without children. Without haste. Just being in stillness, silence, I do not even want to talk to someone. Just me and art.
    Once, maybe ….


  2. It's nice to walk slowly in a gallery with kindred spirits. Don't be affronted if I walk there without seeing you. I have a keen eye for feminine beauty but in a gallery I single focus on the paintings.


  3. That is so interesting. I love art and going to museums too. Now I will be looking at art in a different way. Thanks.


  4. Thanks for the lovely post Han. I love wandering through galleries and seeing all the different types of paintings. The talent that is displayed is awe inspiring. I can spend all day wandering through and sitting still in galleries. 😉

    Hugs and Blessings…


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