(b. 1612, Delft, d. 1656, Leiden)
Oil on panel, 37,7 x 38,2 cm
Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden
A monochromatic style was practised by a group of artists who had close associations with Leiden and specialized in vanitas still-lifes. Although none of the last named group worked only in Leiden or dedicated themselves exclusively to vanitas pictures, they are usually called the Leiden vanitas painters. Their pictorial arrangements of books and writing materials, rare and precious objects, terrestrial and celestial globes, scientific and musical instruments, pipes, snuffed candles, timepieces, and above all skulls are readily read as symbols of transience and the vanity of all earthly endeavour. Often they continued the old tradition of including appropriate captions or texts on their pictures. The favourite was the admonition from Ecclesiastes I: 'Vanity of vanities; all is Vanity'.
Harmen Steenwijck was the leading exponent of this category. Born in Delft, he was a pupil of his uncle David Bailly (1584-1657), a Leiden portraitist who painted a few vanitas still-lifes. Bailly, in turn, studied with Jacques de Gheyn II, whose Vanitas Still-Life of 1603 (New York, Metropolitan Museum) is the earliest existing Dutch painting of the type.
In this picture, he adopted a tonal scale, departing from the ashen colour of the skull; the other objects mostly vary between sallow brown and greyish yellow. This tonality brings the still-life close to contemporary tonal landscape.