Jan Jansz. Treck’s complex but sombre picture is a vanitas, a type of still life that holds a moral message. A still life often presents costly objects in an elegant composition to be admired and discussed by the viewer, like the musical instruments, lacquer box, Rhenish jug and scarf made with gold and silver thread here. A vanitas disturbs the serenity, introducing objects with symbolic meaning: life is short, and luxury and greed – the wearing of glamorous garments, drinking wine and smoking – are worthless in the face of inevitable death.
In Treck’s painting, these are a skull, an overturned hourglass, a straw for blowing bubbles that will burst and disappear and a spent pipe, its still-burning embers by its side. Yet while the painting reminds us of the vanity of all human endeavour, it also drives home the point that art – and Treck’s painting – will endure.
A still-burning ember from a long-extinguished clay pipe lies on a stone shelf. The pipe projects from the open visor of an overturned helmet, and crosses an overturned hourglass. These objects are meant to be seen upright; to see them upset in this way is designed to be disturbing. The hard, white line of the pipe coming from the black void of the visor also gives a feeling of unease. This is a still life, but not the usual serene composition of priceless objects made for quiet contemplation.
The costly items beside the helmet catch our attention, but the seemingly precarious arrangement does nothing to suggest harmony: there is nothing tranquil here. Jan Jansz. Treck shows a wine jug made of gleaming Rhenish stoneware and a polished black lacquer box. He has included musical instruments – a recorder, a viol and its bow – and a silk scarf made with rich colours and silver and gold thread. But a line that descends from the jaw of the skull and down through the recorder ends in a drawing of a man upside down, tipping off the shelf. The scarf is creased up and also likely to drop to the floor. The seal of a document dangles in space and the lacquer box seems almost like a deep black hole in the centre of the composition.
Placed on a casually folded book of music are a straw and a shell containing liquid for blowing bubbles; this was, at the time, a well-known symbol for the brevity of life. And slipping down between the jug and an old book is the title page of a play by the seventeenth-century writer Theodore Rodenburgh, the translation of which is ‘Evil is its Own Reward’.
Above them all is a grinning skull, also overturned, stained with age, some of its teeth missing, and wearing the straw remains of ‘the garland that withers on the brow’. Treck’s complex but sombre picture is a vanitas, a type of still life that holds a moral message. The name comes from the biblical verse: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities: all is vanity’ (Ecclesiastes 1: 2). Ecclesiastes is one of the most morally instructive books in the Old Testament and was studied and preached on in seventeenth-century Holland.
This was intended as a philosophers' picture, to be examined, discussed and interpreted by its viewers. They would have appreciated the detail and accuracy of each item in the painting, admired and understood how the artist used light and shade to present the texture of each precious article. They also would have understood that the painting is a warning both to them and to the less aware: life is short and human ambition, luxury and greed – the wearing of glamorous garments, drinking wine and smoking – are worthless in the face of inevitable death. We, like the bubbles and the smoke, disappear into thin air.
Yet while the painting reminds us of the vanity of all human endeavour, it also drives home the point that while the actors, the artists, the poets and the music makers may one day die, the arts – and Treck’s painting – will endure.
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