As well as the V&A I also visited the National Gallery too, as I thought they would have more examples of vanitas paintings.
Before I went to the gallery I quickly researched what rooms the paintings I wanted to see were in.
Unfortunately photos were not allowed, but I did manage to snap one quick photo inside the gallery! The rest of the photos of paintings are from the gallery website. I made a list of the paintings I liked so I would be able to research them from home.
Trompe l’oeil Studio Wall with a Vanitas Still Life by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts
“This curious and complex Flemish still life is a type of vanitas, depicting recognisable symbols which remind the viewer of the vanity of life. The skull denotes mortality, the bubble conveys the fragility of life, and the dying candle represents the transience of time. Even the work of art itself is subject to decay, as shown by the canvas falling from its stretcher to reveal a portrait miniature of an unknown sitter.
The depiction of a painting within a painting continues through the glimpse of the studio wall and the artist’s tools in the foreground where the passing of time is visualised through the wet paints on the artist’s palette, slowly dripping down in echo of the falling canvas above.
Gijsbrechts is noted for such use of trompe-l’oeil, his paintings often employing the illusionistic technique that became popular in Holland in the 1650s through works by artists such as Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) and Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678). In Gijsbrechts’ work, the use of trompe l’oeil functions to remind viewers that paintings – made up of woven canvases and pigments – are subject to the laws of transience too.”
Vanitas Still Life by Jan Jansz. Treck
“This painting belongs to the category of vanitas still lifes, which contain objects intended to cause the viewer to reflect on the inevitability of mortality and the consequent foolishness of all human ambition. They include a skull wreathed in straw, an hourglass, an extinguished pipe and tapers, musical instruments (a flute, a viol and bow), a black lacquer box and a Rhenish stoneware jug (both collectors’ items), a book of music and a drawing, a shell and a straw used for blowing bubbles, and a helmet. The title-page is of a play by Theodore Rodenburgh (about 1578 – 1644) which was published in Amsterdam in 1618; it can be translated into English as ‘Evil is its own reward’.”
Still Life with Drinking-Horn by Willem Kalf
“The drinking-horn in this still life was made of a single buffalo horn set into a silver mount which features Saint Sebastian, patron saint of archers, who was bound to a tree as a target for two Roman soldiers. It dates from 1565 and is kept today in the Amsterdam Museum. The horn suggests that the painting was probably commissioned by a member of the Amsterdam archers’ guild.
The artist has chosen the objects shown for their magnificent colour and texture. The sparkle of the lobster, the gleam of the lemon, the subtle texture of the carpet, all demonstrate the play of light over different surfaces. A contemporary viewer would have recognised the objects as expensive luxury items that only the wealthy would have been able to afford.”
Still Life with a Pewter Flagon and Two Ming Bowls by Jan Jansz. Treck
“The muted tones and sombre composition of this still life play down the sumptuousness of the precious objects on display. The two bowls are late Ming blue and white, of a type first imported into Holland not long before this picture was painted. The blue has discoloured over the years because the artist used smalt, a chemically unstable pigment.”
Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life by Harmen Steenwyck
“The books symbolise human knowledge, the musical instruments (a recorder, part of a shawm, a lute) the pleasures of the senses. The Japanese sword and the shell, both collectors’ rarities, symbolise wealth. The chronometer and expiring lamp allude to the transience and frailty of human life. All are dominated by the skull, the symbol of death.”
With these paintings I found a number of things striking. Firstly, the symbolism that each object holds, and how everything in the painting has a meaning and is there for a reason. Within my work sometimes I tend to include different objects without learning their symbolism, so if I took a route with my work of a more vanitas feel, I would find out the different symbolisms for the different objects I include in my compositions.
I also found it fascinating how each of these paintings weren’t that big really. My own work is on a very small scale too. It was just a coincidence but it feels like the work I create it more closely connected than I thought to this theme.