This curious and complex Flemish still life is a type of vanitas, depicting recognisable symbols which remind the viewer of the vanity of life. The skull denotes mortality, the bubble conveys the fragility of life, and the dying candle represents the transience of time. Even the work of art itself is subject to decay, as shown by the canvas falling from its stretcher to reveal a portrait miniature of an unknown sitter.
The depiction of a painting within a painting continues through the glimpse of the studio wall and the artist’s tools in the foreground where the passing of time is visualised through the wet paints on the artist’s palette, slowly dripping down in echo of the falling canvas above.
Gysbrechts is noted for such use of trompe-l’oeil, his paintings often employing the illusionistic technique that became popular in Holland in the 1650s through works by artists such as Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) and Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678). In Gysbrechts’ work, the use of trompe l’oeil functions to remind viewers that paintings – made up of woven canvases and pigments – are subject to the laws of transience too.