Frans Hals, Young Man holding a Skull (Vanitas), 1626–8
Despite its sombre message of the transience of life and mortality, Hals’s allegorical work of a fresh-faced youth dynamically gesturing, with its bravura painting technique, is more suggestive of life than of death.
Reaching out of the painting as if to pull us towards him, the young man’s dramatically foreshortened hand exemplifies Hals’s artistic virtuosity. Hals must have worked swiftly and confidently using free and loose brushstrokes, which are easily seen. Scientific examination reveals that Hals painted directly onto the canvas, without any underdrawing – the spontaneity of the brushwork adding to the work’s exuberance and immediacy.
The eye-catching red feather poked at an angle into the young man's hat is daringly painted using wet in wet technique; Hals has even used the end of his brush to scratch into the paint. The dark folds of the drapery were laid down in one layer over the reddish ground, which shows through in places to provide mid-tones between highlight and shadow.
The young man wears an Italian costume made popular among painters in the Netherlands by artists influenced by Caravaggio and the bare interior setting recalls some of Caravaggio’s earlier works.
Images of young men holding skulls as a theme in Dutch painting can be traced back to at least 1516 and was particularly common in Haarlem where Hals was a leading painter. These allegorical works, intended to convey the transience of man’s actions, are known as vanitas, from the Latin for vanity; a name derived from a verse in the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes 12: 8), 'Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.'