The vanitas paintings of Evert Collier

Self-Portrait with a Vanitas Still-life by Evert Collier (1684)

For those of you who have been following my blog over the years, you will know of my love of Flemish and Dutch art. Many of you would be able to conjure up names of some of the great Netherlandish artists such as the Flemish painters Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling, Quentin Massys, and David Teniers or the Dutch painters such as Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer, van Gogh and Rembrandt, to mention just a few. My other artistic love is paintings with symbolism and so in the blog today, I want to introduce you to a lesser known Dutch painter many of whose paintings were awash with a myriad of symbolic objects.

Self portrait by Evert Collier (1682)

My painter I am looking at today is the seventeenth century artist, Evert Collier, who is famous for his vanitas and trompe-l’œil still life works and today I will look at his vanitas paintings. Edwaert Colyer, a Dutch painter possibly of English descent, (who later anglicised his name to Edward Collier) was born in Breda in January 1642 and baptised Evert Calier. He trained in Haarlem and eventually became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke.

Portrait of Vincent Laurenz van der Vinne by Frans Hals (ca 1655}

One of the greatest influences on Collier was a fellow painter of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne. Initially van de Vinne trained as a weaver but then decided to concentrate on painting and in his late teens.  He studied under Frans Hals, who actually painted his portrait around 1660, which is now housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The paintings of van der Vinne which survive today are mostly still lifes and genre scenes. They often include many aspects of trompe l’oeil and, in many instances, incorporate vanitas items.

Vanitas with a Royal Crown by Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne (c.1649)

Vanitas paintings are subtle moralistic depictions which were very popular at the time and were those works of art which, through their symbols, depicted the impermanence of life, the pointlessness of pleasure and were meant to remind people that death is inevitable. In a way they were to counter the wealth and profligacy of many of the well-to-do citizens. The word vanitas comes from the Latin noun ’emptiness’, ‘futility’, or ‘worthlessness’, which was the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and lavish pastimes are merely fleeting and worthless moments in the great scheme of life. Such prosperity was countered by the words of condemnation from the bible (Ecclesiastes 1:2):

“…Vanity of vanities”, says the Preacher, “vanity of vanities!
All is vanity.…”

Vanitas Still Life by Evert Collier

The first work by Collier I am showing is one simply entitled A Vanitas Still Life which was completed by him in 1689. Let us study the work and look at the amazing detail. Look at the way Collier has depicted the string of pearls and the other jewels spilling out of an open casket. Next to the casket we see a Nautilus cup, so called as it was a cup made from a carved and polished nautilus shell and then mounted by goldsmiths on a thin stem of gold or silver to add to the extravagance. In front of the Nautilus cup we see a skull, crowned with laurel. The skull lies on top of an upturned crown, below which we see closed bellows and the jewelled hilt of a sword. The hilt of the sword traps a note to the edge of the table. The Latin inscription on the note is a salutary warning:

NEMO ANTE MORTEM BEATUS DICI. POTEST
(No one can be called happy before death)

It is a warning about not calling anyone blessed or happy, beatus, before he’s experienced all that life has had to offer.

Lying on the table behind the open casket, although not very clear in the picture, is a smouldering taper, wound with ivy. To the right of the skull one can just make out an open book.

So, what does it all symbolise? In one word, our mortality. The presence of the skull is a memento mori or reminder of death and immediately defines the work as a vanitas still life. But there are more symbolism in this work other than the skull representing death.

Nautilus cup

It is the association of the skull and the items of extreme wealth, such as the gold-stemmed Nautilus cup, casket overflowing with precious jewels and the gold crown which together remind us that wealth and power are futile in the face of death, which harks back to the passage in the book of Ecclesiastes in the bible.

Crown, skull, bellows and sword hilt.

Look at the richness of colour in this work. The glimmering pearls, the black and red gemstones, and the pearly grey shimmer of the Nautilus cup, which is adorned by golden figures. The whites and the golds of the crown and jewelled-bedecked sword hilt glitter in the light and are picked up in the gilded tassels of the table cloth.

As one looks at the painting one is seduced by the riches before us but one cannot get over the sight of the skull, symbolising death and the expiring taper which symbolises the transience of life, all of which serve as a warning that we should not be beguiled by such earthly wealth. Even the bellows is symbolic as they are used to pump life into a dying fire but in the painting, the bellows lie closed and of no use.  The down-turned crown symbolises, which once represented power and kingship, has been symbolically overturned by death and even the bejewelled sword which once was an emblem of power and earthly might is rendered ineffectual by death.

But the painting is not all symbolising doom and gloom. There are also symbols of hope. The laurel wreath atop the skull and the open book present an encouraging note that fame achieved through learning can conquer death and this is corroborated by the note on the stone pillar:

FINIS CORONAT OPUS
(the end crowns the work)

which is a variant of the well-known Vanitas maxim:

Vita Brevis, ars longa
(Life is brief but art endures)

Vanitas still life by Evert Collier (1662)

Above is an early work by Collier, painted in 1662, during a period when he produced some of his best work. In this depiction he includes a candlestick, musical instruments, Dutch books, a writing set, an astrological and a terrestrial globe and an hourglass, all of which are on a table covered by a heavy ornate table covering. Once again these decorative and expensive objects indicate that wealth, knowledge and power are all earthly, temporary and ultimately meaningless. The tempus fugit theme is symbolised by the burning candle, pocket watch and hourglass which also represents the brevity of life; the violin with a broken string signifies the transient pleasure of music whilst the money bag denotes the worldly riches. The scholarly books and globes represent the vanity of learning, and the military flag denotes worldly power. On a piece of paper at far right one can once again read the words from Ecclesiastes:

Vanitas Vanitatu Et Omnia Vanitas
[Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity]

The Vanitas work above by Collier is housed in the Denver Art Museum.  This one, although having a number of Vanitas symbols, does not have a skull.  Look at how Collier has given through this work the idea of it being 3-D when we know it is simply a 2-D painting.  Such “artistic trickery” is known as trompe d’oeil (trick of the eye).

Vanitas painting by Evert Collier (1703)

Collier moved to London in 1693, where he lived almost ten years. In 1702, Collier returned to Leiden, where he worked productively for four years. However, due to circumstances, the artist was forced again to move to London. There, in September 1708, Evert Collier died, aged 66 and was buried in the cemetery of the church of St James’s Piccadilly.

Man at the Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten

Man at the Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten (1653)

My Daily Art Display today enters the world of trompe l’oeil.  The term is French and literally means “trick of the eye”.  It is a kind of artistic illusionism which gives the appearance of three-dimensional realism.  This story of trompe l’oeil originated in ancient Greece.  Pliny the Elder records in his Natural Histories the famous confrontation between two Greek 5th Century BC painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius who were involved in a painting contest. Each would try to make a picture that produced a more perfect illusion of the real world.   Zeuxis painted a likeness of grapes so natural that birds flew down to peck at them. Then his opponent, Parrhasius, brought in his picture covered in a cloth. Reaching out to lift the curtain, Zeuxis was stunned to discover he had lost the contest.  What had appeared to be a cloth was in reality his rival’s painting.

The early precursors of modern trompe l’oeil appeared during the Renaissance, with the discovery of mathematically correct perspective. But the fooling of the eye to the point of confusion with reality only emerged with the rise of still-life painting in the Netherlands in the l7th century.  Trompe l’oeil sets itself apart from ordinary decorative painting by its intent to mislead the observer, and it is this which sets it apart from ordinary still-life painting. The artist’s technical ability is meant to go undetected and, with use of perfect perspective, cleverly observed light and realistic colours, the ploy is to make the viewer believe that a flat surface is not actually flat, or that a space exists where there, in fact, is no space. A trompe l’oeil painting is one which shows apparently three dimensional objects and spaces in a way which the eye accepts as realism in the context of their surroundings.

The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), 1785

The new genre soon spread throughout Europe and America.   In American art, we have the Charles Willson Peale’s painting of 1795 entitled  The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), which is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.   Peale executed this painting to prove that he was still one of the city’s preeminent artists. On a very large canvas, he made one of his rare full-length portraits, showing two of his sons on an enclosed spiral staircase. The high degree of detail and finish shows that the painting was undoubtedly intended to be a trompe l’oeil, an effect that Peale had never attempted before. To enhance the illusion, he set up the painting within a doorframe in his studio, with a real step in front. Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that his father’s friend George Washington, misled by Peale’s artifice, tipped his hat and greeted the two young men as he walked by!

Though highly regarded by collectors, from the beginning art theorists often rubbished trompe l’oeil as the lowest category of art.  These “wise” men regarded it as a mere technical tour-de-force that did not require invention or intellectual thought.  However in the l7th century, leading trompe l’oeil artists were not only receiving acclaim and acknowledgement from many quarters they were seen as also pushing the boundaries of the genre.  My Daily Art Display’s featured painter today,  Samuel van Hoogstraten was even  awarded a medal for his services to Art by the Emperor Ferdinand III, the Holy Roman Emperor, after being so impressed by one of his trompe l’oeil paintings.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today today is entitled Man at the Window which Hoogstraten completed in 1653 and now hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.   Look how the artist’s has splendidly portrayed the old man’s wrinkles and the graying of his beard.  The old man’s brow is furrowed and his head is slightly angled.  See how much detail the artist has given the window.   On the sill outside the window he has added a small vase which enhances and emphasizes the depth in the painting.  This window ledge is shaped by a stone wall surrounding the window.  Look at the amazing amount of detail Hoogstraten has put into his depiction of the texture and surface of the stonework.  You can almost believe that if you touched the surface of the painting it would feel like stone.  It is quite amazing.  Also on the windowsill, the artist has added a feather and a couple of leaves, one of which hangs over the side of the sill.  We see the man’s head protruding from one of the panes in the window and this gives the appearance that he is actually coming out towards our space.  Although it is a kind face there is something very haunting about it.  One can easily imagine that as an observer passes this painting and glances at it, they suddenly imagine that they are being watched by this elderly but real person. 

Today’s artist, besides his many trompe d’oeil works, completed many varied paintings and in a future blog I will look at the life of Samuel van Hoogstraten and another of his paintings.   He was not only a very talented painter but also a writer on art. He painted genre scenes in the style of de Hooch and Metsu, and completed many portraits, but maybe he will be best remembered as a specialist in perspective effect.