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This delicately rendered painting is one of the finest known works by the Dutch painter François van Daellen. As the Gallery’s painting shows, this specialist in still-life painting possessed a refined manner that allowed him to could masterfully imitate the range of textures in the combinations of objects found in such subjects. In the Gallery’s example, which pictures a large skull and femur (thigh bone) atop a scattered assemblage of books and manuscripts, he ably captures bone’s smoothness, paper’s brittleness, and even the ethereal quality of smoke that wafts from the tip of an extinguished candle.

Skulls and bones, and snuffed-out candles often appear in vanitas still lifes, which were designed to convey moralizing messages about the passage of time and the ephemerality of life.

Books are also common elements in vanitas still lifes. Books, indications of intellectual pursuits, may suggest that scholarly and creative achievements last beyond the short span of human life. However, they may also suggest how fugitive and vain man’s accomplishments are in the face of death. As with many objects in Dutch still lifes, books did not necessarily have a single symbolic meaning.

Although Van Daellen painted this work in The Hague, one can easily imagine that Vanitas Still Life belonged to a scholar, perhaps even in Leiden, and that it hung in his study. The illusionistic archway Van Daellen used to frame the work lends the image a certain feeling of intimacy, as, too, does the painting’s small size—strong indications that this work was created for private contemplation and reflection.


lower left: F.V. Daellen


Private collection, United States; (sale, Bonhams, New York, 6 November 2013, no. 15, as Attributed to Frans van Dalen); (Jack Kilgore & Co., Inc., New York); purchased 20 May 2014 by NGA.