This painting evokes a sense of the calm and simplicity of everyday routine and of the virtue of labour as the old woman absorbs herself in polishing the glowing brass of a large pan. But other objects on the sill give her scouring a different, darker significance and clearly identify the picture as a vanitas (‘vanity’, symbolising the transience of life).
The broken pot is a typical motif suggesting vulnerability to the ravages of time. The candlestick too: candles, which burn for a limited time, were a common analogy for mortality. The butterfly – well-known to enjoy the briefest of lives – is another subtle signifier.
So while the woman’s work might still be considered virtuous it is also, ultimately, futile. Scour all you like, is the implication, but the pot will eventually lose its shine.
There are two seventeenth-century Dutch paintings with this distinctly unglamorous title in the National Gallery’s collection. The other, attributed to Pieter van den Bosch, was painted about ten years before this one, and is a much more naturalistic scene of a woman at work in a kitchen. It evokes a sense of the calm, order and simplicity of everyday routine and of the virtue of labour.
These themes are also present in Schalcken’s painting. The old woman is quietly absorbed in polishing the glowing brass of a large pan. Its inside catches the light, illuminating her arms and face; other objects on the sill also gleam in the daylight. It is these which give the scouring a different, darker significance and clearly identify the picture as a vanitas (‘vanity’, symbolising the transience of life).
The broken pot, right in the centre, looks rather odd to our eye, but Schalcken’s customers would have understood a clear suggestion of fragility and vulnerability to the ravages of time. The candlestick, tipped on its side, suggests the same. Candles, which burn for a limited time before they are blown out or gutter and die, were a common analogy for mortality. The butterfly, which has apparently settled innocently on the stone at the side of the painting, is another subtle signifier: they were known to enjoy the briefest of lives. All this casts the woman’s work into another light. It might still be considered virtuous but it is also, ultimately, futile.
Today, we might find it hard to understand the appeal of hanging a reminder of our mortality up on the living room wall. But at the time it was quite normal. Plenty of vanitas paintings were much more explicit than this one, even including a skull to drive the point home. The moral of these paintings was not a negative one. It was an attempt to contrast the transience of worldly life with the everlasting nature of faith and Christian redemption. And they could also been seen as a reminder to make the most of our life, before it is taken from us.
Such paintings were also a chance for artists to demonstrate their ability to depict objects, and people, with lifelike precision. Schalcken’s teacher Gerrit Dou, was a master of this. Schalcken learned from him, and also borrowed the format of stone arch (or niche) to frame the old lady. Dou’s niche paintings, normally of tradespeople at work, were very popular in his native Leiden and the framing device was often copied by other artists. In this picture, Schalcken has simplified the composition. There is a particularly clear contrast between light and shade – the interior of the room is so dark that we can’t make out any of its details.
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