Posts Tagged ‘17th century Dutch painting’


This drawing has four of the standard elements of a 17th century vanitas image:  skull, book, mirror and hint of a plant.  All are symbols of the passage of time and the futility of holding on to anything.  Hence, the category “vanitas.”  “Vanitas” is a genre that the Dutch painters of the 17th century often worked with.  More on that in the next post.

As I looked at this drawing on my screen, I felt conflicted between looking at the skull as the major element and at the mirror image as the focal point.   The skull won.  But the skull is not as interesting as the mirror image, is it.  So I flipped the image in Photoshop.


Ta-tah!  Here the skull is still the most poignant element in the drawing—it’s the strongest and most complete symbol of mortality.  But look what happens to the circular mirror with the partial profile of the skull.


Here the compositional lines lead UP to the circle.  The circle holding the skull reflection now has an upbeat, optimistic feeling.  This goes against the vanitas theme, which is supposed to be a warning against pride.  Forget pride and preaching.  This drawing, seen in the flip version (flip!), is ironic and witty.

We’ve seen in previous posts how flipping an image will change how it feels.  Same information, very different feeling.  But this vanitas drawing, flipped, is uncanny.

Drawing by Jeanne Müller, graphite, ~16”x20,”


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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MillstoneCWhat could possibly be the appeal of this garment? Granted, this is an ad and therefore an exaggeration, but the overwrought tube scarf that was in fashion this past winter invites an interpretation. During these cold months we saw and still see women weighed down by these bulky catenating knits as if they were making a statement. What might be the intended statement? We can rule out the need to keep warm, because these things, more often than not, are cascating down and away from the neck. It couldn’t have been about money, too cheap. It couldn’t have been about knitting as an appealingly feminine activity, too old-fashioned an idea. It couldn’t have been considered attractive, in the sexy sense, since these things bulge up and turn the female torso into a barrel.
All I could think of when I encountered these tube scarves (their actual name) on public transportation and in museums was the Millstone Collar, a fashion rage in the sixteen hundreds. We see them in the IMG_4955portraits by Rembrandt, Hals and many other Dutch painters of the early seventeenth century. Jane Hollander in her study of fashion, “Seeing Through Clothes,” doesn’t go near the Millstone Collar. She talks extensively about the use of black in fashion over the centuries—and the Dutch were big on black—but the Millstone Collar? Doesn’t mention it.
It’s such a peculiar, extreme, impractical thing to have put around your neck, that I’ve amused myself with some theories of my own.
The Millstone Collar was so named because it looked like a millstone. But it couldn’t have weighed anything. It was made of very fine linen that was starched to high heaven and pleated mercilessly. It must have been expensive. Also, scratchy and uncomfortable. You couldn’t possibly do anything but sit while wearing this thing. If you wanted to get to your chair, I can imagine you had to be guided by someone because without holding someone’s hand you risked tripping. You couldn’t see your feet or where you were stepping!
Because of the danger it posed to an ambulatory wearer, I think the Millstone Collar was only worn when you were posing for a portrait. But why would you want to be portrayed this way? Here’s my theory. The collar looked like a platter. The collar created the illusion that your head was resting on a platter. Your head appeared to be disconnected from your body. It existed on a different plane. An image that MillstoneBpresented the separation of body and head/mind/soul would have appealed to you if you, as a member of the reformed church , had been taught to rise above your dirty body and its desires. You wanted to be portrayed with your head in a loftier realm—on a platter, resting on the Millstone Collar.
We sometimes use the expression “a millstone around my neck” when we talk about a great, onerous burden. The tube scarf looks like a burden more than anything else. Women seem to be encumbered, weighed down by these things. Maybe that’s the answer. There’s a lot of talk in our media and around kitchen tables about women multi-tasking, doing it all, having too many obligations. The millstone/tube scarf may just possibly feel right to many women because it symbolizes their plight.
Draped like that over your sternum, the tube scarf certainly doesn’t keep your neck warm. And MillstoneAyou can’t see where you’re stepping, just like the 17th century Dutch with their itchy Millstone Collars.

For images of real millstones, see https://www.google.com/search?q=millstone&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=sL8UVbiwO4qQsQT6poLADQ&ved=0CDIQsAQ&biw=1398&bih=1066
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.



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