Harmen Steenwyck - Still Life, An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life [c.1640]

This type of painting is called a vanitas, after the biblical quotation from the Old Testament - Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. The books symbolise human knowledge, the musical instruments (a recorder, part of a shawm, a lute) the pleasures of the senses. The Japanese sword and the shell, both collectors' rarities, symbolise wealth. The chronometer and expiring lamp allude to the transience and frailty of human life. All are dominated by the skull, the symbol of death.

Harmen Evertsz. Steenwyck was born in Delft, where he mainly worked. He and his brother Pieter were taught by their uncle, David Bailly, in Leiden. Bailly is often credited with the invention of the type of painting called a vanitas, which emphasises the transience of life and the vanity of worldly wealth. The vanitas was a speciality in Leiden, and Steenwyck became its leading exponent.

[Oil on oak, 39.2 x 50.7 cm]