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.

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Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly

 

Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly (1651)
Vanitas Still-life with a Portrait of a Young Painter by David Bailly (1651)

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:

VANITAS VANIT(AT)VM

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.

 


The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael (c.1660)

When I come to think about the painting I am going to use for My Daily Art Display I like to try and find one by an artist I haven’t featured before.  I also like to showcase an artist I had not heard of previously so that when I research his or her life it is a learning curve for me.  Today, however My Daily Art Display is a three-fold repeat which limits what I can say, without being accused of repeating myself.

 Firstly I have offered you a painting by Jan van Ruisdael before (January 9th) but I will not apologise for that as he is an amazing painter and has completed many superb works of art.   Secondly, the painting today is a Vanitas-type painting, a type of painting, which I talked about when I offered you the Still Life of Food and Drink by Willem Heda on February 11th, and lastly this painting resembles in many ways the painting by Arnold Böcklin which I gave you on January 5th.  Having said all that, I have to tell you that when I was looking through some art books for my next presentation I was immediately taken aback by the strength of this painting and the aura that emanates from it.

My Daily Art Display today is The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael which he completed around 1660 and now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister in Dresden with a larger version in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  This is a Vanitas genre painting, which is a type of painting that depicts an object or collection of objects symbolizing the brevity of life and the transience of all earthly pleasures and achievements.  In other words it is a painting which reminds us that we are not immortal and notwithstanding how rich or powerful we are –  we will all die sooner or later.

There is a definite melancholic and depressing feeling about this painting.  There is also that sense of foreboding which was present in Arthur Böcklin Island of the Dead which I gave you on January 5th.  The ruins, the graves and the dark skies set the mood of the painting.  Ruisdael had this uncanny talent to be able create such feelings in how and what he depicts.   This is a painting of the Portugeuse-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk on the Amstel River close to Amsterdam, however to be absolutely accurate, I must tell you that only some of the elements in the painting actually exist such as the three large tombs shown in the mid-ground, but that’s about it !  

The backdrop to the cemetery bears no similarity to the place at Ouderkerk.  There are no ruins overlooking the actual cemetery.  The ruins Ruisdael painted were the remains of the Egmond Castle which is situated near Alkmaar some thirty miles away.   There is no river running through the cemetery but Ruysdael just used it to portray the fact that the water like time rushes away from us.  The landscape, the river and the “added-in” ruins were just figments of Ruysdael’s imagination but one has to admit they do lend themselves well to the atmosphere he wanted to project.   

The three large tombs in the middle ground, which immediately catch one’s eye, the dead beech tree in the right foreground and the broken tree trunk overhanging the fast flowing river all indicate allegorically the fast approach of death.  However, Ruisdael does offer us a glimmer of hope in the way we can see a shaft of light penetrating the black clouds.  We can also see a rainbow and if we look carefully there are signs of flourishing growth amongst the dead trees, so he is telling us there may be a better life still to come after death.   Art historians have interpreted this painting simply as a reminder that man lives in a transient world and that despite being beset by sinful temptations there is always hope for salvation and deliverance.