Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Vanitas Still-Life with Bouquet and a Skull, oil on canvas, c.1642, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1599-1652
In a book titled, The Painted Word, Tom Wolf gives an account of a New York Times art critic who was unable to comment on a painting because he did not know the theory behind it. Instead of a picture being worth a thousand words, today it may take a thousand words to help us understand a painting. This often is true of abstract art but it may be true of “realistic” paintings as well. Art is created in an historical time period and understanding the context in which it was made is essential to its meaning. A person looking at Adriaen van Utrecht’s “Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull,” without regard to the wealthy merchant class and the Protestant Reformation in The Netherlands during the seventeenth century, may think the skull is very much out of place and that it ruins an otherwise perfectly pleasant still-life.
In van Utrecht’s painting we see some of the recurring themes and objects of the vanitas genre (the term vanitas is Latin for “vanity”). Although these paintings were created more than four hundred years ago, they continue to have a message for us today. A bouquet of lovely flowers is featured in this still-life. If we were to be asked why flowers exist, it is likely we would agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson (said of a rhodora), “If eyes were made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being.” Flowers bring pleasure but even while enjoying them, we are aware of their short “shelf life.” In a vanitas, flowers symbolize the cycle of life and often they will be shown in their various stages – bud, full bloom, and faded. They remind us that like flowers we too come forth, mature, blossom, and then fade. Contained in the painting also are objects that represent the passing of time; thus they are reminders of the transient nature of life and our mortality. On the table is a chronometer (a portable timekeeping instrument) and an hourglass in a wooden case (in the background). A smoking pipe and drinking glasses represent time spent in empty pleasures.
Items in the painting also represent treasures that were possessed typically by the wealthy Dutch merchants of Antwerp; a string of pearls, a gold chain, a ring, and money. The wealthy often displayed items such as rare sea shells; a nautilus is on the far right. A decorative pedestal serving dish above the nautilus denotes luxury.
As a reminder of the folly of acquiring treasures, vanitas often contained a skull; the universal symbol of death. In van Utrecht’s still life it is placed prominently atop a book that represents the limits of human knowledge. The skull’s presence among earthly treasures serves as a message, “As I am, so too you will be.” A crown of laurel leaves is placed over the skull to remind viewers that for the Christian there is victory over death.
There is irony in the fact that vanitas were expensive works of fine art and like other objects they too became commodities possessed by the wealthy.
Hovak Najarian © 2013