Still-life painting emerged as an important art form in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. Its origins can be traced to the painstakingly crafted details found in the religious paintings of artists like Jan van Eyck and Joos van Cleve. The vanitas still life, a subset of this genre, grew out of the long artistic tradition known as the memento mori. In these "reminders of mortality," skulls or death figures were used either as primary subjects or elements in portraits, images of saints, and allegorical scenes. Acquired by private patrons for their homes, vanitas still lifes were appreciated for both their visual appeal, with incredible details painted in luminous oil paint, and for their deeper philosophical meaning.
Hendrick Andriessen, a Catholic artist working in Antwerp, followed in the footsteps of his Dutch predecessors. Not a single object is without meaning in his ca. 1650 vanitas. The skull, bubbles, extinguished candle, flowers, and glass vase all speak to the fragility and ephemerality of life; the watch, its hand positioned near midnight, symbolizes the passing of time and the approach of the final reckoning; the regalia of king and bishop signify the fleeting nature of temporal power; and the book on which the skull rests is emblematic of the futility of intellectual pursuits. Lest the viewer miss the point, Andriessen includes a document warning of the fleeting nature of riches and power. It admonishes: "Look yourself in the eye, and mark your state if you are not like a bubble, smoke, vapor, or a flower that withers." These grim tidings are tempered by a few hopeful signs of the possibility of redemption in the afterlife: the crown of wheat refers to the Eucharist and therefore to rebirth and resurrection; the holly, a symbol of Christ's crown of thorns, offers further promise of salvation.
Stylistically, Andriessen's painting dates to a period of brutal civil wars in England and the end of the reign of Charles I. The crown, scepter and medal of St. George (the patron saint of England) indicate that Andriessen drew upon contemporary events for inspiration for his vanitas. Supporting that idea is another inscription which says that despite "all the king's gold, fame and triumphs, his rule was repressed and his regal pomp gave way in the last hour." Whether intended for a Catholic or Protestant viewer, these allusions to the crumbling English monarchy would have had special resonance in the 1640s and their aftermath.
Andriessen's virtuosic still life embodies the paradox that is at the very heart of the vanitas concept. He depicts objects symbolizing the transience of worldly pleasures, passions, and ambitions, while at the same time tempting us to marvel at his artistic virtuosity. The two self-portraits that are reflected in the silver candlestick epitomize this paradox. In real life, reflected self-images are ephemeral, but here Andriessen gives an ironic twist to the vanitas, immortalizing himself in paint and, in some small way, triumphing over time and death.