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Vanitas Still Life by Jan Jansz. Treck: A Sombre Message

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

Vanitas Still Life, 1648

By Jan Jansz. Treck

(National Gallery, London)

This complex still life painting was intended as a philosopher’s picture, to be discussed, interpreted, and scrutinized by its viewers. It is a vanitas; namely a still life that bears a moral message. Its audience would have marvelled at the many strange objects that have been arranged in a purposefully uncomfortable, unstable, and precarious manner, and would have revelled in trying to underpin the painting’s complex and sombre message.

A burning ember from a long-extinguished pipe reclines on a stone shelf. To its right, the pipe itself projects from an open overturned helmet and extends over an overturned hourglass. To the right of the painting, there is a wine jug, and behind it, a title page of a play by the 17th century writer Theodore Rodenburgh entitled “Evil is its Own Reward.” The play rests against a book in the right corner of the painting.

In the center of the painting, there is a black lacquer box supporting an overturned skull tarnished with age, and missing some teeth. Straw remains of a garland perch delicately on its surface. Below the skull, a creased silk scarf of bold colours and gold and silver thread dangles off the edge of the shelf; it is precariously close to dropping to the floor.

To the left of the painting, there is a straw and a shell containing liquid used for blowing bubbles. At the time, this was a recognized symbol for the brevity of life. These two objects rest atop a casually folded music book. Below, a drawing of a man upside down emerges from a closed book, and is dangerously close to tipping off the shelf.

The painting also features musical instruments, namely a recorder, and a viol with its bow, both partly obscured amongst or behind other objects.

There is a disturbing and uneasy air to this painting with its upturned objects you would normally expect to find standing upright. While it is a still life, it is a tense and uncomfortable painting to observe.

I am arrested by this gloomy yet visually captivating painting that is about the vanity and futility of all human endeavours. It is a grim warning to us all that life is short, and that human ambition is futile in the face of our inevitable deaths. We, like the objects in the painting, will one day succumb to our deaths, and like the bubbles, will perish into thin air.

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