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 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, 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, indications of intellectual pursuits, are also common elements in vanitas still lifes and 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.
This striking vanitas still-life painting juxtaposes scholarly and artistic achievements with reminders of the fleeting nature of human life. Daylight streaming into a dimly lit room from an open window at left highlights a marble tabletop adorned with a blue cloth. The cool light illuminates a large skull and femur on the table, softly modeling their smooth, curved shapes. Books and pamphlets of all sizes lie scattered beneath the bones. The books sit neatly shut, their leather covers glinting, while the pages of the pamphlets are curled and bent from frequent use. One of them is filled with small, illegible text. Smoke wafts upward from a just-extinguished candle with a warm ember still glowing at the tip of the wick.
This small panel is one of the finest known works by the Dutch painter François van Daellen. Van Daellen joined the Guild of Saint Luke in The Hague in 1636 after apprenticing with portraitist Joachim Ottensz Houckgeest (c. 1585–after 1644), but little else is known about his life.
Frederik Daniel Otto Obreen, Archief voor Nederlandsche kunstgeschiedenis, vol. 4, (Rotterdam, 1881–1882), 32.
Van Daellen probably derived his combination of books, skulls, femurs, candles, hourglasses, and other vanitas elements from the examples of artists working in Leiden in the 1630s, including
Alan Chong, and Wouter Kloek, Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands, 1550–1720 (Amsterdam and Cleveland, 1999), 168.
For example, see Hendrick Hondius I, Vanitas (“Finis Coronat Opus”), 1626, engraving, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam RP-P-1904-15; see Ruud Priem, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum (Vancouver, 2009), 48–49.
Alan Chong and Wouter Kloek, Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands, 1550–1720 (Amsterdam and Cleveland, 1999), cat. 27.
Books, however, as with many objects in Dutch still lifes, did not have a single symbolic meaning. Finely bound publications could be seen as objects of vanity, and satirical emblems lambasted profligate book collectors as know-nothings who ostentatiously displayed their books without understanding their contents
Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff (Basel, 1494; facsimile edition, Strasbourg, 1913), 8.
See Jan Bialostocki, “Books of Wisdom and Books of Vanity,” In Memoriam: J. G. van Gelder, 1903–1980 (Utrecht, 1982), 37–67; Ann Jensen Adams and Sabine Schulze, eds., Leselust: Niederländische Malerei von Rembrandt bis Vermeer (Frankfurt am Main, 1993); Jochen Becker, “Das Buch im Stilleben, das Stilleben im Buch,” Stilleben in Europa (Münster, 1980), 448–478.
Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leiden, 1586), 171; adapted from Johannes Sambucus, Emblemata (Antwerp, 1566), 56.
Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leiden, 1586), 172; adapted from Hadrianus Junius, Emblemata (Antwerp, 1565), 11. Also see Ann Jensen Adams and Sabine Schulze, eds., Leselust: Niederländische Malerei von Rembrandt bis Vermeer (Frankfurt am Main, 1993), 34.
Van Daellen does not prescribe a specific reading of this vanitas still life by means of a painted motto, but the concentration of bright sunlight streaming into the study and the placement of the skull as though looking toward the open window evokes the promise of eternal life. One can easily imagine the owner of this small painting contemplating it in his own study, ruminating on his mortality and hopes for salvation.
June 30, 2017
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.
The primary support is paper that measures 19.1 by 14.7 centimeters (7.5 by 5.75 in.) and is adhered to a thin wooden panel. A 0.6-centimeter-wide wooden veneer is glued around the edges of the secondary support to the height of the top layer of paper, possibly as an attempt to hide the edges of the paper and make the painting look as if it were directly on the panel. Two incisions have been made along the top and the bottom edges of the wooden veneer, likely meant to imitate panel joins.
The paper support is covered with an extremely thin, dark, blackish brown layer applied overall. Under magnification, this layer appears as small islands of paint particles that allow the paper support to show through. On top is a thin, transparent, reddish brown imprimatura, which extends throughout much of the composition but was not applied overall. The thickness and transparency of this layer vary throughout. Although infrared reflectography shows no signs of an underdrawing, it appears that the artist planned the composition partly with a thin, dark, blackish brown painted line, as well as leaving reserves in the reddish brown imprimatura for certain compositional elements.
Infrared reflectography was carried out using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera filtered to 1.1–1.4 microns (J filter).
The paint medium is estimated to be oil, and the paint is delicately applied in thin glazes with little texture. As a result of thin, semitransparent or transparent paint layers, the luminosity of the underlying layers and the paper support play a large role in the overall composition.
The primary support and paint layers are in good condition, although there are several small areas in the top portion of the painting where the paper support is delaminating from its wooden secondary support. There is some inpainting in the dark background and in some of the shadows of the still-life elements. The varnish is thick, glossy, and mildly discolored.