Vanitas is an explicit genre of art in which the artist uses gloomy and moody symbolic objects in order that the viewer becomes very aware of the brevity of life and the inevibility of death. The origins of the term vanitas can be traced back to the Latin biblical adage from the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:2):
“…vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas…”
which when translated means:
“…vanity of vanities; all is vanity…”
This specific artistic genre was very popular in the 16th and 17th century especially in the Netherlands, Flanders and France.
My Daily Art Display blog today looks at one of the works by the great Dutch still life and vanitas painter David Bailly. Bailly was born in Leiden in 1584. His father, Pieter, a Flemish immigrant from Antwerp, was a writing master. Being a practicing Protestant he had fled from the Catholic Spanish rule of his homeland to the safer, more tolerant Northern Netherlands, eventually settling in the town of Leiden. It was whilst living here that he married Willempgen Wolphaertsdr. and the couple went on to have four children, Anthony, Anna, Neeltgen and David. In 1592 David’s father took up the position as writing master at the University of Leiden. He remained there until 1597 at which time he changed careers and became fencing master at a school run by the mathematician Ludolph van Cuelen, which was an establishment set up to train aspiring army officers in the various facets of warfare.
David’s initial training in drawing came from his father and in 1597, at the age of thirteen, he trained at the Leiden studio of the Dutch draughtsman and copper engraver, Jacques de Gheyn II. David Bailly soon came to believe that his future did not lie as a draughtsman but as a painter and he was somewhat fortunate to live in the town of Leiden which was the home of many established and aspiring artists. The leading artist in Leiden at the time was Isaac van Swanenburgh, who with his three sons, had set up a thriving studio in the town. However it was not to this family concern that young David sort employment and tuition but instead his father arranged his son to become an apprentice to the painter and surgeon, Adriaen Verburgh. In 1602 David moved to Amsterdam and became an apprentice in the city studio of the very successful portraitist and art dealer, Cornelius van der Voort.
At the end of 1608, then aged twenty-four, David Bailly, now a journeyman painter, set off on his own Grand Tour, all the time seeking out commissions. He travelled around Europe visiting a number of German cities such as Frankfurt, Nuremburg and Augsburg before crossing the Tyrolean Alps into Italy where he visited Venice and Rome. In all, his journey lasted five years and it was not until 1613 that he returned to the Netherlands.
Once back home his work concentrated on drawing and painting portraits and vanitas still-life works and would often, as is the case in today’s featured work, combine the two genres. His portraiture at the time consisted of many works featuring some of the students and professors of the University of Leiden. He built up a very illustrious clientele which was testament to his artistic ability. Bailly also had a number of pupils, two of whom were his nephews Harmen and Pieter van Steenwyck, who rank amongst the best still-life Dutch Golden Age painters. In 1642 David Bailly married Agneta van Swanenburgh. The couple did not have any children. In 1648, he along with other artists including Gabriel Metsu, Gerard Dou, and Jan Steen founded the Leidse Sint Lucasgilde – Leiden Guild of St Luke. David Bailly died in Leiden in October 1657, aged73.
The painting I am featuring today is entitled Vanitas Still Life with a Portrait of a Young Painter which was completed by David Bailly in 1651 when he was sixty-six years of age and six years before he died. It is now housed in the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden. It is a fascinating painting full of symbolism. To the left of the painting we have, what some believe, is a self-portrait of the artist himself, but of course as we know Bailly’s age when he painted the work we know this was a depiction of himself as a young man in his early twenties. In his right hand he holds a maulstick, or mahlstick, which is a stick with a soft leather or padded head, used by painters to support the hand that holds the brush. In his other hand he holds upright on the table a framed oval portrait of himself as he was at the time of painting this work. So in fact the man sitting on the left of the painting and the man in the frame are one and the same and the inclusion of both images in the painting simply reminds us of the transience of life.
Behind the framed self-portrait we have another oval painting, that of a young woman and this has always interested art historians. It is believed to be a portrait of his wife Agneta in her younger days. However at the time the painting was completed Bailly’s wife was gravely ill, in fact, it could well be that she had already died. Look closely at the wall in the right background, just behind the half empty fluted glass, can you make out a ghost-like portrait of a woman, en grisaille, painted on it, across which drifts the smoke from the extinguished candle? This is another classic vanitas symbolisation. This could well be alluding to the fact that his wife had died from contracting the plague. On the table we also see a standing figure of Saint Stephen bound to a tree, pierced with arrows. So what is the connection with St Stephen and the other objects on the table? One theory is that there was a link between Saint Stephen and the plague, which killed so many people in Europe, including Bailly’s wife. The infections produced by the bubonic plague caused people to compare the “random attacks” of the plague with attacks by arrows and these folk desperately sort out a saint who was martyred by arrows, to intercede on their behalf and so prayers were offered up to St Stephen for him to intercede.
This is a vanitas still-life painting and we see the usual vanitas symbolism amongst the objects depicted in the work of art. Vanitas works allude to the transience of life. Time passes. It cannot be halted. We all must eventually die. Look at the background of the painting. Look at the angle of the wall as it vertically divides the painting. To the left, the painting is brightly lit and we have the young man, the aspiring artist, with his unused artist’s palettes hanging on the wall. To the right of the vertical divide, the room is in shadow and we have the portrait of the old artist. On the vertical line we have a bubble, which is a classic metaphor for the impermanence and fragility of life.
There are many other items to note. On the wall we see a print of Franz Hals 1626 painting, The Lute Player. There is a plethora of objects on the table including a picture of a bearded man which could have been a portrait of Bailly’s father or maybe one of his teachers. On the table, there are also many noteworthy items indicating death such as the skull, the extinguished candle, the tipped-over Roemer glass, the grains of sand of an hour glass running down and the wilting flowers. There are also reminders of the luxuries of life which are of little use to us once we are dead, such as the coins and the pearls as well as items that have once helped us to relax and add to our enjoyment such as the pipe and the book, as well as the art in the form of paintings and sculpture. Sadly, pleasure and wealth are short-lived and ultimately unimportant. This is about the temporality of life. Overhanging the table in the foreground is a scroll with the words:
ET OMNIA VANITAS
which remind us of the words from the book of Ecclesiastes I quoted at the start of this blog.
So the next time you decide to have somebody take your photograph, think carefully what you would place by your side or on a nearby table so as to convey a subtle and symbolic message to the people who will view the photograph in years to come.