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Alexandra Libby, “François van Daellen/Vanitas Still Life/c. 1650,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed May 25, 2024).

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Fri Jun 30 00:00:00 EDT 2017 Version

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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 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.[1] In other works, such as the vanitas still life in Detroit [fig. 1], Van Daellen portrayed the same combination of objects on similarly sized panels, but with less compositional unity. He frequently varied the architectural settings of his scenes. Some show arrangements framed within illusionistic stone niches, while others offer glimpses of grander spaces with columns and courtyards. In this painting, Van Daellen has placed the still life behind an illusionistic archway, creating an intimate interior and suggesting the kind of secluded study in which this small painting may have hung. The bright highlights and streaming sunlight set before a dark background, as well as the distinctive vertical format, suggest a date around 1650.

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 Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, 1606 - 1684) and Harmen Steenwijck (1612–1656). Leiden boasted an internationally renowned theological university, as well as a branch of the Plantin publishing house, both of which may have made books an especially evocative subject for that city’s viewers.[2] Books, whose physical permanence can transcend the span of a human life, often suggest associations with scholarly and creative achievements. Some artists made this association explicit by including mottoes such as “non omnis moriar” (I shall not entirely die), “vita brevis ars lunga” (life is short, art is long), or “finis coronat opus” (the end crowns the work) in their vanitas images.[3] These maxims underlined the Christian notion that, for one who has led a virtuous life, death is to be welcomed joyously rather than feared. Worn and tattered books could echo these positive connotations by evoking a life spent in worthwhile study rather than in the vain accumulation and display of worldly goods. An emblem from Geoffrey Whitney’s A Choice of Emblemes, published in Leiden in 1586, advises, “The use, not the reading of books makes us wise” [fig. 2]. Similarly, in many book still lifes painters celebrated Dutch intellectual accomplishments by depicting specific title pages of plays or volumes of poetry, as in De Heem’s Books and Pamphlets from 1638, in which Gerbrandt Adriaensz Bredero’s Treur-Spel van Rodd’rick ende Alphonsus is prominent [fig. 3].[4] No specific texts can be identified in the Gallery’s small panel; the issues of scholarly achievement and human transience are broadly expressed rather than identified in a known publication.

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 [fig. 4].[5] In this painting the tattered pamphlets could also suggest how fugitive and vain are the accomplishments of man in the face of death.[6] As Geoffrey Whitney warns his readers, amassing huge numbers of books, and even perusing them at length, is a vain endeavor if the wisdom printed on the page is not applied to one’s daily life.[7] Whitney paired this emblem with a second one that depicts a table bearing an hourglass, a candle, and an open tome [fig. 5].[8] His explanatory text advises that idleness will consign one to oblivion, while studiousness will bring fame, and thus triumph over death.

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.

Alexandra Libby

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.

Technical Summary

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.[1] The blackish brown painted line was applied on top of the thin blackish brown layer.

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.

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