Harmen Steenwijck - Vanitas

by Alexandra Tuschka


Not all still lifes are the same . The images of inanimate objects often have deeper, symbolic meanings. So we find also in this work of Harmen Steenwyck many such objects. On the far left, presently moved to the edge of the table are an exotic snail shell. This was a rarity in the 17th century and stands for earthly wealth, but through the fragility of the shell also to its transience. The Japanese sword is a symbol of worldly power. The material behind it is particularly precious. The combination of purple and silk reinforces the impression of wealth. Purple was the most expensive of all colors and silk the most expensive of fabrics around 1640.

The artist can also demonstrate his skill through the plasticity and materiality of the objects. The artist's realism is expressed through an impressive painting technique. Thus, he used thin brushes and imitated the upper material of an oak panel.


The composition of the painting is a cross shape. This is supported by the incident light. This striking light illuminates the skull, highlighting it again. But also the light can be interpreted symbolically. It stands for the presence of God and, in contrast to the other objects, is of eternal duration. The skull, as the most classic of all vanitas symbols, dominates the picture background. He seems to be facing the viewer directly. He is surrounded by instruments and books, which in turn stand for the arts and worldly pleasures and allude to sensual perception.


The stone jug, which is on the right edge of the picture, may contain water or oil. Only dimly, if you look closely, you can see the outline of a pope on the surface. Even his fame did not outlast the time. The simple title "vanitas" sums it up aptly - all these goods and status symbols are transient in the face of death.


Harmen Steenwijck - Vanitas

Oil on wood, 17th century, 39.2 x 50.7 cm, National Gallery, London

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