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Vanitas still-life

Vanitas still-life


Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraten (c. 1630-1700)

c. 1670-80

Oil on canvas. Signed ‘P Roestraete’ lower right.

53 x 46.7 cm

72 x 65.5 cm (frame)

Higher res images available on request

Pieter Gerritz. van Roestraten’s illusionistic still-lifes were in high demand among the late seventeenth century English aristocracy, who delighted in the visual trickery.  He specialised in depicting the luxury objects of Restoration court life, and was particularly admired for his skilful renditions of gleaming silverware.  But beneath the glittering surface, Roestraten’s vanitas paintings, like this one, were allegories that warned of the inevitability of death and the transience of earthly riches.


Born in Haarlem in the Dutch Republic around 1630, Roestraten trained in the workshop of Frans Hals, and in 1654 married his master’s daughter, Adriaentje.  By 1666, the couple had moved to London to take advantage of the growing demand for European paintings.  Soon after his arrival,  Roestraten reportedly sustained a hip injury during the Great Fire, causing him to limp for the rest of his life.  According to his early biographers, fellow Dutch artist Sir Peter Lely warned Roestraten not to compete in his own field of portrait painting.  He advised Roestraten that if he stuck to another genre, he would support him in his endeavours, and they would be friends, rather than rivals.  Roestraten seems to have taken this counsel on board, and painted still-lifes almost exclusively for the rest of his career.  Lely duly introduced his countryman to King Charles II who admired his work, and within a short time, Roestraten’s still-lifes were highly sought after by the English elite.


Still-lifes were a seventeenth century Dutch speciality.  Roestraten must have been influenced by his supremely talented and successful compatriot, Willem Kalf, who lived and worked in Amsterdam in the 1650s, when he and Adriaentje were also living there.  A decade earlier, Kalf had developed the banketje (little banquets) of Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz. Heda into a new form, the pronkstilleven (assembly of luxuries).  But this was the Calvinist Dutch Republic, where ostentatious display was frowned upon, and consequently most still-lifes took the form of a ‘vanitas’, an allegory that reminded the viewer of the vanity and brevity of earthly pleasures.     


This still-life was probably painted during Roestraten’s earlier years in London.  An illusionistic marble shelf supports a range of objects, among them a violin, a watch, and an ornately embossed silver lidded goblet.  The goblet was probably in his possession since it features in several of his other paintings, including Still Life with Chinese TeaserviceGemäldegalerie, Berlin.  The objects have been chosen to show off Roestraten’s supreme painterly skill, but they also carry allegorical meanings that remind us of our mortality.  Later, Roestraten seems to have abandoned the moral message of his vanitas paintings, focusing instead on exotic imports – especially porcelain tea wares –  chosen principally for their decorative effect. 


The objects assembled in this still-life allude the transience of life.  The violin’s broken string reminds of the thread of life, which the Fates spun, measured and ultimately cut.  So too the delicate flower, which blooms only for a short time before fading, and the watch, which marks the unceasing passage of time.  The golden goblet, spilling coins and medals, warn of the moral corruption of riches: money and mortality were a common pairing in seventeenth century art.  The sheet of paper that curls over the shelf bears the traces of a now-faded image, one that no doubt carried a similar moral.  There is a more optimistic message for us in the statue of a naked boy holding what may be a puppy, its mother gazing up at them.  She symbolises fidelity, so perhaps Roestraten is telling us not to despair: if the things of this world will soon pass away, we must remain faithful to God, and so will He be to us.


Roestraten embedded a paradox deep into this Vanitas still-life.  The objects seem to come to life on the smooth surface of the canvas: we feel we can reach out and touch the watch-key hanging on its ribbon.  We admire the lustrous silver and feel the thrill of possession.  But just as he offers us their beauties, Roestraten reminds us of the ultimate worthlessness of worldly pleasures.  Like his paintings, they are nothing but a seductive illusion.

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