De Gheyn was a wealthy amateur who is best known as a brilliant draftsman, but he also painted and engraved. This panel is generally considered to be the earliest known independent still life painting of a vanitas subject. The skull, large bubble, cut flowers, and smoking urn refer to the brevity of life, while images floating in the bubble—such as a wheel of torture and a leper’s rattle—Spanish coins, and a Dutch medal refer to human folly. The figures flanking the arch above are Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing and weeping philosophers of ancient Greece.
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed: (on sill) JDGHEYN FE ANo 1603 [now largely illegible]; (on keystone of arch) HVMANA / VANA (human vanity); (lower left, on obverse of coin) IOANA·ET·KAROLVS·REGES·[ARA]GONVM·TRVNFATORES·[ET]·KATHOLICIS / C A (Joanna and Charles triumphant and Catholic kings of Aragon); (lower right, on reverse of coin) IOANA·ET·KAROLVS·[EIVS·FI]LIVS·PRIMO·GENITVS·DEI·GRA[CI]A·R[E]X / ARAGON[VM] / L S (Joanna and Charles her firstborn son by the Grace of God king of Aragon) [from a coin struck in 1528]
?Reynier Antonissen, Amsterdam (in 1604); J. H. Price, London (until 1939; sale, Christie's, London, April 21, 1939, no. 159, as "J Heyn . . . 1607," to Manenti); [Harrison, London, until 1966/67; sold to Larson]; Rolf Larson, Stockholm (1966/67–74; sold to MMA)
Stockholm. Nationalmuseum. "Holländska Mästare i Svensk ägo," March 3–April 30, 1967, no. 53.
Leiden. Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal. "Idelheid der Ijdelheden: Hollandse Vanitas-voorstellingen uit de zeventiende eeuw," June 26–August 23, 1970, no. 12 (lent by Larson, Stockholm).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
Carel van Mander. Het Schilderboeck . . . Haarlem, 1604, fol. 294 v [see "Karel van Mander: The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters", ed. Hessel Miedema, 6 vols., Doornspijk: Davaco, 1994–99, vol. 1, 1994, pp. 436–37], refers to a painting of "eene doots cop" [skull] in the collection of Reynier Antonissen, Amsterdam, possibly this work.
H[enri]. E[khard]. Greve. De Bronnen van Carel van Mander. The Hague, 1903, p. 225, records the reference in Ref. Mander 1604.
Johan Quiryn van Regteren Altena. Jacques de Gheyn: An Introduction to the Study of his Drawings. Amsterdam, 1935, p. 24, cites the reference in Ref. Mander 1604.
Ingvar Bergström. Dutch Still-Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century. London, 1956, p. 161, mentions the reference in Ref. Mander 1604.
David Oliver Merrill. "The 'Vanitas' of Jacques de Gheyn." Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin 25 (March 1960), p. 9, notes the reference in Ref. Mander 1604.
Ingvar Bergström inHolländska mästare i svensk ägo. Exh. cat., Nationalmuseum. Stockholm, 1967, pp. 47–48, no. 53, ill. p. 50, describes the composition and mentions Van Mander's reference.
Ingvar Bergström. "De Gheyn as a 'Vanitas' Painter." Oud Holland 85, no. 3 (1970), p. 143–56, fig. 1, recalls the circumstances of discovering that the work is by De Gheyn; describes the composition, identifies the symbolic motifs and several of the coins; relates it to earlier prints and drawings by De Gheyn; considers the painting to be the earliest dated independent picture of its kind, and notes the apparent reference to it in Van Mander.
Ingvar Bergström inIjdelheid der Ijdelheden: Hollandse Vanitas-voorstellingen uit de zeventiende eeuw. Exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal. Leiden, 1970, unpaginated essay and pp. 10–11, no. 12, ill.
Maarten L. Wurfbain. "Over Vanitas-voorstellingen." Ijdelheid der Ijdelheden: Hollandse Vanitas-voorstellingen uit de zeventiende eeuw. Exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal. Leiden, 1970, unpaginated, briefly discusses the question of whether this is the painting cited by Van Mander.
Ingvar Bergström. "Vanité et Moralité." L'Oeil no. 190 (October 1970), pp. 12, 15, fig. 3 (color), describes it as one of the most interesting paintings in the Leiden exhibition of 1970.
Pieter Fischer. Music in Paintings of the Low Countries in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Amsterdam, 1972, p. 63, mentions the work in a discussion of vanitas imagery.
J. Richard Judson. The Drawings of Jacob de Gheyn II. New York, 1973, pp. 18, 38, 42 n. 17, notes the skull's important role in vanitas paintings; discusses De Gheyn's drawing of Democritus and Heraclitus in relation to the vanitas theme; doubts that this is the picture described by Van Mander, which "must have been executed prior to 1603–1604".
Naomi Popper-Voskuil. "Selfportraiture and vanitas still-life painting in 17th-century Holland in reference to David Bailly's vanitas œuvre." Pantheon 31 (January–March 1973), p. 68, suggests that a painting by David Bailly may have been inspired by this work.
John Walsh Jr. "New Dutch Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum." Apollo 99 (May 1974), pp. 341–42, 349 n. 3, fig. 3, announces the picture's purchase by the Museum; describes it as "the earliest developed Vanitas painting"; compares the niche with Titian's "Entombment"; identifies the straw below the skull with a passage from Isaiah 40: 6-7, and cites two other Biblical sources.
Anthony M. Clark inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1965–1975. New York, 1975, p. 95, ill., calls it "perhaps the earliest Vanitas still life".
Noémi Voskuil-Popper. "Johan de Cordua. A Forgotten Vanitas Painter [of the] 17th Century." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 87 (February 1976), p. 74 n. 28, refers to the images of Democritus and Heraclitus in the picture as representatives of the motto, "Time to laugh and time to weep"; sees the philosophers' diverging views of the world as reflected in the division of the composition into a bright and dark side, with a flower on one side, smoke on the other; and discusses the coins as an attempt to connect vanitas imagery with portraits of Emperor Charles V and Joanna of Castille.
Ingvar Bergström et al. Natura in posa: la grande stagione della natura morta europea. Milan, 1977, p. 31, refers to a print inspired by the iconography of this painting.
André Chastel. Fables, formes, figures. Paris, 1978, vol. 1, p. 26, fig. 8, reflects on man's mortality and relates this painting to a quote from Malraux.
B. A. Heezen-Stoll. "Een vanitasstilleven van Jacques de Gheyn II uit 1621: afspiegeling van neostoïsche denkbeelden." Oud Holland 93, no. 4 (1979), pp. 243–44, 250, fig. 16, sees De Gheyn (not David Bailly) as the originator of vanitas painting in Leiden based on the evidence of this work.
Christian Klemm. "Weltdeutung—Allegorien und Symbole in Stilleben." Stilleben in Europa. Ed. Gerhard Langemeyer and Hans-Albert Peters. Exh. cat., Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. Münster, 1979, pp. 194, 196, 202, 206, ill. p. 199, summarizes the symbolism and compares the later use of a "soap bubble or glass sphere" by Jan de Heem.
Jochen Becker. "Das Buch im Stilleben—das Stilleben im Buch." Stilleben in Europa. Ed. Gerhard Langemeyer and Hans-Albert Peters. Exh. cat., Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. Münster, 1979, pp. 455, 458, mistakenly describes the painting as by De Gheyn's father, and compares it with a later work by Pieter van Roestraeten.
Alberto Veca. Vanitas: Il simbolismo del tempo. Exh. cat., Galleria Lorenzelli. Bergamo, 1981, pp. 64–65, fig. 75, cites the panel as the first vanitas painting, and compares it to images of skulls on the back of earlier Flemish portraits.
E. de Jongh inStill-Life in the Age of Rembrandt. Exh. cat., Auckland City Art Gallery. Auckland, New Zealand, 1982, p. 206, fig. 41d, mistakenly lists it as in a private collection in Stockholm.
James A. Welu. "Arrangements with Meaning: Dutch and Flemish Still Life." 600 Years of Netherlandish Art: Selected Symposium Lectures. Memphis, 1982, pp. 32, 34, fig. 9, discusses the picture's meaning.
Ingvar Bergström. "Composition in Flower-Pieces of 1605–1609 by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder." Tableau 5 (November–December 1982), p. 175, mentions the tulip in this painting as a symbol of transience.
Sam Segal. A Flowery Past: A Survey of Dutch and Flemish Flower Painting from 1600 until the Present. Exh. cat., Gallery P. de Boer. Amsterdam, 1982, p. 31, proposes that Jan Brueghel was inspired by the coins in this painting.
I[ohan]. Q[uirijn]. van Regteren Altena. Jacques De Gheyn: Three Generations. The Hague, 1983, vol. 1, pp. 84–85, 177 n. 14; vol. 2, pp. 15, 38, 130, 142, no. 11; vol. 3, pl. 3, describes the painting's style and slighty refines the iconographic reading proposed by Bergström [Ref. 1970]; considers it the painting cited in Van Mander; argues that three drawings by De Gheyn, one of Heraclitus and Democritus, one of three flowers, and one of a skull, are studies for the painting.
Bob Haak. The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. New York, 1984, pp. 118, 126–28, fig. 218, cites the tulip as an emblem of mortality; considers it likely to be the painting mentioned by Van Mander.
Onno ter Kuile. Seventeenth-century North Netherlandish Still Lifes. The Hague, 1985, pp. 32–33, 35, fig. 11, calls it "the earliest known 'Vanitas'"; reviews the symbolic motifs and cites the work as a likely influence on David Bailly and other vanitas still life painters in Leiden.
Sam Segal. "Roelant Savery als Blumenmaler." Roelant Savery in seiner Zeit (1576-1639). Exh. cat., Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Cologne, 1985, pp. 57, 64 n. 13, compares it with a painting by Roelant Savery dated 1603.
Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, p. 190, cites it as "the earliest 'vanitas' in existence" and as "one of the most important if not best-preserved still lifes in the [Museum's] collection".
A. W. F. M. Meij inJacques de Gheyn II Drawings, 1565–1629. Ed. A. W. F. M. Meij. Exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningen. Rotterdam, 1986, p. 55, under no. 38.
Jan Briels. Vlaamse Schilders in de Noordelijke Nederlanden in het begin van de Gouden Eeuw 1585-1630. Haarlem, 1987, pp. 260, 262, fig. 328 (color), interprets the image as presenting a choice between material and spiritual values.
Susan Donahue Kuretsky. "Het schilderen van bloemen in de 17de eeuw." Kunstschrift no. 3 (1987), pp. 85–86, fig. 3, sees the vase with a striped tulip and a rose as a symbol of mortality.
Sam Segal. A Prosperous Past: The Sumptuous Still Life in the Netherlands, 1600–1700. Ed. William B. Jordan. Exh. cat., Delft, Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof. The Hague, 1988, pp. 19–20, 65, 207 n. 20, calls it "the oldest isolated vanitas still life in Dutch art" and considers it "the basis of a great tradition"; identifies the figures on the coins as Charles and Johanna of Aragon, arguing that they are evidence of De Gheyn's direct contact with Antwerp.
Walter Liedtke. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and Their Ideals." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1990, p. 55.
Peter C. Sutton in Ben Broos. "Recent Patterns of Public and Private Collecting of Dutch Art." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis. The Hague, 1990, p. 104.
Jacques Foucart. "La peinture hollandaise et flamande de vanité: une réussite dans la diversité." Les Vanités dans la peinture au XVIIe siècle: Méditations sur la richesse, le dénuement et la rédemption. Ed. Alain Tapié. Exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen. Caen, 1990, p. 56, fig. 1, considers the picture to represent a vanitas-type of the years 1600–30.
Kristine Koozin. The Vanitas Still Lifes of Harmen Steenwyck: Metaphoric Realism. Lewiston, N.Y., 1990, p. 28, fig. 8, interprets the figures of the philosophers, the bubble, and the straw beneath the skull.
Harald Olbrich and Helga Möbius. Holländische Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts. Leipzig, 1990, p. 246–47, pl. XXIII, use this painting to begin a discussion of Dutch vanitas still lifes.
Ingvar Bergström. "Homo Bulla: La boule transparente dans la peinture hollandaise à la fin du XVIe siècle et au XVIIe siècle." Les Vanités dans la peinture au XVIIe siècle: Méditations sur la richesse, le dénuement et la rédemption. Ed. Alain Tapié. Exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen. Caen, 1990, pp. 51–52, pl. 6, describes the composition, diagrams the symbols in the bubble, and compares the symmetry of the images with allegorical prints.
Alain Tapié inLes Vanités dans la peinture au XVIIe siècle: Méditations sur la richesse, le dénuement et la rédemption. Ed. Alain Tapié. Exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen. Caen, 1990, p. 242, mistakes De Heem for De Gheyn as the painting's author.
E. John Walford. Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape. New Haven, 1991, p. 215 n. 21, considers the meaning of the wheel that appears in the sphere.
Serge Alexandre. "La nature morte de 'vanité' en Hollande, 'memento mori' ou ésotérisme?" Art & Fact no. 10 (1991), pp. 54, 59 n. 23, fig. 3, describes the iconography and raises the question of whether this picture can really be described as a still life.
Josefine Leistra. Bredius, Rembrandt en het Mauritshuis!!!. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1991, p. 106, fig. 1, under no. 25, cites it as the earliest independent vanitas painting.
Marcel George Roethlisberger. "Abraham Bloemaert's Vanitas Representations." Delineavit et Sculpsit no. 5 (May 1991), pp. 22, 26 n. 14, mentions the picture as contemporary with a vanitas painting by Abraham Bloemaert.
Bernard Barryte. In Medusa's Gaze: Still Life Paintings from Upstate New York Museums. Exh. cat., Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. Rochester, N.Y., 1991, unpaginated, under no. 4.
Cynthia Kortenhorst-von Bogendorf Rupprath inJudith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World. Exh. cat., Worcester Art Museum. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1993, p. 216, mentions the tulip as a symbol of human mortality.
Marcel G. Roethlisberger. Abraham Bloemaert and His Sons: Paintings and Prints. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 1993, vol. 1, p. 102, under no. 55, cites it in connection with Bloemaert's painting of a "skull with other motifs" cited by Van Mander.
Sam Segal in "De symbolick van de Tulp." De Tulp en de Kunst. Exh. cat., Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1994, pp. 15, 114 n. 16, fig. 10, suggests that the coins symbolize the material world of mankind and worldly power.
Seymour Slive. Dutch Painting 1600–1800. New Haven, 1995, p. 282.
Erika Gemar-Koeltzsch. Luca Bild-Lexikon: Holländische Stillebenmaler im 17. Jahrhundert. Ed. Klaus Ertz and Christa Nitze-Ertz. Lingen, Germany, 1995, vol. 2, pp. 376–77, no. 135/1, ill.
Görel Cavalli-Björkman and Bo Nilsson. Still Leben. Exh. cat., Nationalmuseum. Stockholm, 1995, pp. 140, 230, refer to it as the earliest "free-standing" Vanitas composition.
E. K. J. Reznicek inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 12, New York, 1996, p. 532, calls it "Allegory of Mortality".
Hans J. van Miegroet inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 31, New York, 1996, p. 881, fig. 1, calls it one of the earliest vanitas still life paintings.
Víctor I. Stoichita. The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Cambridge, 1997, pp. 28–29, 31, 186, 192, fig. 13, compares this painting to the allegorical and vanitas imagery that often appeared on the reverse of panels in earlier centuries, noting that here reverse becomes obverse; adds that "an external reality" appears to be reflected in the large glass sphere over the skull.
Simon Schama. Rembrandt's Eyes. New York, 1999, p. 709 n. 15, refers to the tulip in the painting as an emblem of "mortality and remembrance".
Hessel Miedema, ed. Karel van Mander: The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters. By Karel van Mander I. Vol. 6, Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 1999, p. 49, fig. 41, identifies the painting called "eene doots cop" by Van Mander with the Museum's picture; describes its composition and compares it with a painting of a "Skull with other subsidiary elements" (een dootshooft met ander byvoeghselen) by Abraham Bloemaert, which was in the collection of the Amsterdam collector Jacques Razet in 1604.
Alan Chong and Wouter Kloek. Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550–1720. Exh. cat., Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam, 1999, pp. 140–41, fig. 15a, compares it with a vanitas still life by Pieter Claesz in the MMA (49.107).
Gay van der Meer. "Vergankelijke rijkdom: Een penning, afgebeeld op een Vanitasschilderij, van de verovering van het Portugese galjoen São Jago door twee Zeeuwse schepen nabij Sint-Helena in 1602." Tijdschrift voor Zeegeschiedenis 23 (2004), pp. 17–19, 25–27, fig. 1, identifies the coins and a medal of 1602; considers their possible topical significance and reviews the question of patronage.
Christian Klemm inPieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life. Ed. Pieter Biesboer. Exh. cat., Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 2004, pp. 79–80, fig. 4, places the painting in an historical context, comparing it with works by Abraham Bloemaert and Cornelis Ketel; sees it as progressive in its realistic depiction, but also as theatrically emblematic.
Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 14, 59, fig. 69 (color).
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. xi, 112, 128, 213–23, no. 48, colorpl. 48, figs. 56, 58 (color details); vol. 2, pp. 636, 897.
Artist: Jacques de Gheyn II (Netherlandish, Antwerp 1565–1629 The Hague)Date: ca. 1602Medium: Pen and brown ink; verso: pen and brown ink, green and brown watercolour, grey washAccession: 2008.240a, bOn view in:Not on view