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Godfried Schalcken, An Old Woman scouring a Pot

Key facts
Full title An Old Woman scouring a Pot
Artist Godfried Schalcken
Artist dates 1643 - 1706
Date made 1660s
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 28.5 × 22.8 cm
Inscription summary Signed
Acquisition credit Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876
Inventory number NG997
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
An Old Woman scouring a Pot
Godfried Schalcken

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.

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