Posts Tagged ‘symbols’


I would like to have met Harmen Steenwijck. I wonder if anybody in Delft, where he was born, or Leiden, where he died, knew how witty he was.

In 17th century Holland artists had to invent themselves and their art.  A hundred years earlier the members of art guilds were kept busy with commissions from the Catholic Church: murals, tapestries, candelabra, gold smithing, marble carving and all that.  Then in 1517 a monk named Martin Luther said, let’s not do that anymore, well, not directly but in a round-about way.  The religious debate got very political, of course, with the Protestants storming Catholic Churches and smashing everything from stained glass windows to statuary to paintings.  In Holland, newly stripped down and whitewashed Catholic Churches were converted to Protestant Churches that tolerated no imagery or decoration.  But, hey, what about us artists!  What do we do now?

Dutch art became secular and humanist.  It became modern!

The Vanitas genre can be seen as a link between the old life-is-a-vale-of-tears theology and the new humanism that stressed living deeply with the reality of death.  But notice, that while theology preached hellfire-and-damnation, this new thing, humanism, gave you images to contemplate and it let your mind roam.

We still had to work with symbols.  Symbols furnished and cluttered our minds way into the end of the 19th century. But you could play with them.  These symbolic objects in your collection didn’t talk back like lace-collared Burgers who sat for a portrait.  You could arrange these things any way you wanted.  You played.


Harmen Steenwijck played. Some of the objects he shows in his still lifes were very expensive, like the Japanese sword, the sea shell, and the antique vase. In his Vanitas paintings they symbolized the futility of wealth.  The sea shell, expired life.  Then there are more common objects to represent the pleasures of life, like pipes and books.  The just extinguished candle is an obvious symbol of death and the skull takes the cake in this department.  Now, since he was painting an image with a message and everybody knew what symbolized what, why didn’t he just paint a shelf or a cupboard, with these things arranged one next to the other?  Wouldn’t that get the message across?

The message, yes.  But nobody would be attracted to the painting.  To pull viewers in and hold them emotionally, he needed to arrange the objects in a compelling composition.  Unlike portraits, still lifes were not commissioned.  A Vanitas, like other genre paintings, had to appeal a collector’s eye and tickle his mind.

In the painting shown at the top of this post, Steenwijck clusters all his symbols into a wedge at the bottom, balanced by the silence in the top triangle where a ray of light dramatically aims for the skull.


It’s a daring composition.  Spend some time with this painting and you’ll find that the empty gray wall in the background turns out not to be silent at all. It becomes eerie and ominous.

What we get with Steenwijck is a modern feeling for pictorial space.  There is no such thing as negative space or unimportant space in a painting.  That wall is not “empty,” it’s not “nothing.”  It’s an essential part of the drama.

This is an intriguing painting. But still, if he had painted the mirror image, that shell perched so precariously on the tip of the table would have gained so much more tension and character.


Harmen Steenwijck, 1612 – 1656

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





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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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