(b. 1626, Leiden, d. 1679, Leiden)

The Life of Man

Oil on canvas, 68,2 x 82 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

The painting shows an ordinary interior with ordinary people, in a straightforward way, not particularly embellished. Yet, in this deceptively natural painting a moral is hiding. This is not a scene casually glimpsed but the presentation of a scene; it is presented, literally, by drawing up a curtain. This drawn-up curtain has a special function: it calls the scene to the viewer's attention: 'now look at this.'

What the viewer sees are people, young and old, male and female, drinking and playing and, above all, eating a lot of oysters. As oysters were a conventional aphrodisiac, they became a common sexual symbol - and their abundance gives this picture an unambiguous erotic meaning. But then, almost exactly where in the middle of the curtain is drawn up highest, a young boy is hiding in the attic, blowing bubble; a skull is next to him. The connotation of the skull is clear enough - and so to the contemporary audience, was the boy. He is the illustration of a classic adage: 'homo bulla' - 'man is a bubble.' The inclusion of this symbol of the insignificance of worldly pursuits unavoidably changes the meaning of this painting.