Beautiful objects were common in the northern Netherlands of the 16th and 17th centuries. Thanks to successful foreign exploration, abundant trading and the careful and conscientious handling of money, it was a time of great freedom and prosperity in the Netherlands.
Along with other luxury items – cutlery, flatware, fine furniture, jewellery, books, musical instruments, beautiful fabrics and carpets – more private individuals owned paintings than ever before.
Since the northern Netherlands had become Protestant, religious art was replaced by other genres of painting — and one of the most recognizable of these is the still life.
Sill life images are remarkable for their accuracy. Artists worked to capture the effects of reflected light, liquids seen through glass, flower petals and textures of cloth. But they’re also endowed with a sort somber moodiness – the images are dark and placed in strange, anonymous settings against ambiguous backgrounds. Because of their beauty and the skill used to produce them, still life paintings themselves became commodities.
And on some of these images was laid a moralizing tone. Ownership of beautiful objects, after all, does not stave off death or stop the passage of time. People were still mortal. So some still life pictures became known as vanitas paintings. Images that reminded the viewer of the imminence and inevitable presence of death in the world.
A handful of standard elements show up repeatedly in the vanitas tradition – the skull, representing mortality, the overturned wineglass representing the ease with which life and pleasure can flow away, the blown out candle and the musical instrument, representing the transience of the flame and musical note. However some uncommon examples represented the lives of specific people.
One such painting, Wialliam Bailly’s Self Portrait with Vanitas Symbols, was painted when the artist was an old man. However, it represents him in his youth holding an image of his aged self.
Along with the traditional vanitas imagery, the art objects that defined his trade surround him, including bubbles, flowers and a glass of wine. But these possessions and artistic accomplishments, the painting suggests, are as ephemeral as his life.
Today, in the 21st century in a tiny apartment in London, this blogger tried to make her own vanitas self-portrait.
Here’s the result.
Like the still life artists, I’ve tried to make an image that’s beautiful to look at and I’ve tried to incorporate some memento mori elements – objects that refer to the transience of existence and our accomplishments. And I’ve tried to consider it as a comment on my own life.
Here’s the result of my boyfriend’s efforts – what can you glean about his life?
How do they differ? What objects act as memento mori in each image? How have possessions changed in the 400 or so years since the Dutch still life masters? And how do these studies work in the photographic medium as opposed to painting? How does the mood differ between the two photos, and how are they both different from the paintings?
And now I encourage you to make your own vanitas picture. After all, the unexamined stuff is not worth having.
And if you’d like to learn a little more about early modern Dutch art, take a look at Happy 379th Birthday Willem van de Velde!