HALS, Frans
(b. 1580, Antwerpen, d. 1666, Haarlem)

Young Man with a Skull (Vanitas)

Oil on canvas, 92,2 x 80,8 cm
National Gallery, London

Although the young man holding a skull in his hand has occasionally been identified as Hamlet, this interpretation is probably incorrect. It is much more likely to be a Dutch vanitas allegory. As in corresponding still Iifes featuring the same attribute, it voices a warning, calling on the spectator to think of death, even in youth. Such an interpretation may describe the content of the painting, but it still does not touch upon the actual meaning of the image. This is to be found in the way Hals has created a variation on a theme of Utrecht Caravaggism by equipping the model, a young man, with certain props and portraying him as someone posing for a painting. It is this that is the actual event or action of the painting, and as such it is very similar to the work of the young Rembrandt, who painted himself in similar garb working at his easel.

In spite of the borrowings from the Utrecht school, there are nevertheless distinct differences. The figure does not develop from the darkness towards the light, but is lit from behind. The trompe l'oeil effects, the foreshortened hand and the skull that almost seems to jut beyond the front of the pictorial plane, are all masterly devices in which illusion is less important than painterly wit.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.