Dutch & Flemish Vanitas Paintings: A Theme for the North’s Golden Age

In museums, popular and visual culture, the vanitas genre is everywhere. However, the popularity of this theme was established during the 17th century through Dutch and Flemish art.

Aug 23, 2023By Anisia Iacob, MA Art History, MA in Philosophy
dutch flemish vanitas paintings


During the 17th century, Dutch and Flemish artists were at the center of artistic innovation in Europe. Great artists names like Rembrandt and Vermeer created their masterpieces during this time. However, another theme was popularized further, ready to spread across Europe. The Dutch vanitas and Flemish vanitas played a pivotal role in the growing interest in this type of painting. Through the popular genre of still life, the otherwise archaic vanitas theme reinvented itself and achieved new artistic heights. This article explores the key moments that influenced and contributed to the expansion of this celebrated genre, which was quickly adopted by artists throughout Europe.


Flemish Vanitas & Dutch Vanitas, Catholicism or Protestant Reformation?

willem miers allegory vanitas rijksmuseum
Allegory of Transience by Willem van Mieris, c. 1670-1681, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


In Dutch and Flemish art, vanitas paintings are found mainly in compositions that are part of the still-life painting genre. The reason for this is not entirely clear, but several theories suggest that it has to do with the impact that the Protestant Reformation had in the area. While the Northern Dutch part became independent from the Catholic Spanish rule and adopted the Reformation, the Southern Flemish part remained under Catholic rule. This resulted in the following phenomenon: a considerable number of Flemish people moved to the North and established themselves there. Several artists were among the refugees. For example, Haarlem is known for having been the home of numerous Flemish artists who fled from the South during this period.


However, communication between the two provinces continued after the split. The Flemish area, although under Spanish rule, kept in touch with the Reformed North, and artists oftentimes benefited from these exchanges of information and influence through commerce. It is in this climate that the vanitas paintings developed as Flemish vanitas and Dutch vanitas. But how similar and different are the two, really? The following sections will take a quick look at the two styles in order to understand what sets apart and brings together Dutch and Flemish art.


Differences and Similarities

adriaen werff bubble vanitas rijksmuseum
Bubble-blowing Girl with a Vanitas Still Life in the manner of Adriaen van der Werff, c. 1680-1775, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The political and religious factors are two things to take into consideration when discussing Dutch and Flemish art in general because of the patrons and buyers who purchased paintings. They, inevitably, dictated to some extent the market according to their tastes and interests. For example, after the Dutch Republic was formed and officially adopted the Reformation, artistic themes and subjects associated with Catholic patronage quickly became unpopular.

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Due to this, religious subjects depicted in the traditional style of Baroque, for example, are virtually nonexistent. The representations of God, saints, and angels didn’t align with the ideals of the Reformation. After all, Luther condemned opulence and the lavish decorations of Catholic churches. Art was an inherent part of this decoration and of the Catholic cult of representation. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that art disappeared entirely from the Dutch Republic. On the contrary, the seventeenth century is known to have been one of the most prosperous periods for the production of Dutch art.


Still-life paintings were one of the genres on the rise and quickly became a popular option on the art market for both wealthy and middle-class buyers. Still-life paintings also agreed with the ideals of the Reformation as they didn’t depict human figures but instead depicted objects to hint at religious and moralistic messages. As the Dutch vanitas still life paintings became very popular and sought after, even across the borders of the Republic, the Flemish vanitas is inspired by its Dutch counterpart, although it sometimes retains some Catholic influence in its compositions.


The Flemish Vanitas: Influenced by Foreign Patrons

cornelis gysbrechts vanitas still life mfa
Vanitas Still Life by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, ca. 1667, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts (ca. 1630–1684), sometimes spelled as Gijsbrechts, is an excellent example of a Flemish vanitas painter whose works were influenced by the clients he had throughout his career. Born in Antwerp around 1630, Cornelis rose to be one of the most notable still-life painters who frequently made use of the theme of vanitas in his paintings. He worked in various European cities, such as Regensburg, Hamburg, and Copenhagen.


His most famous patron was none other than the king of Denmark-Norway, who had his court in Copenhagen. After becoming a court painter there for a Lutheran king, his still life paintings resembled very much the regular Dutch vanitas paintings, which were, as previously discussed, visually influenced by the Reformation. In his case, it is visible that the preferences or religious orientation of the patron played a decisive role in the art production of the artist.


Besides this, Cornelis also stood out as an artist because of his extensive employment of the trompe-l’oeil technique. This technique involved a hyper-realistic depiction of objects to trick the viewer’s eye through optical illusions to believe that there is a real element in the painting. It was common to represent a window so realistically that the viewer might believe it is indeed real. The same goes for other objects or settings.


The Flemish Vanitas: A Popular Choice

cornelis gysbrechts vanitas trompe loeil boston
Trompe L’Oeil by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, 1663, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Among other painting subjects, vanitas still-life paintings were popular among both clients and artists. The prosperity of the genre can be seen in how Cornelis’ son followed in his father’s footsteps at the court of Denmark-Norway. This alone attests to the demand for this type of painting, especially among wealthy clients who could afford to collect multiple types of works and form a diverse art collection.


Francis Gysbrechts (1649- after 1677) was a Flemish painter, the son of Cornelis Gysbrechts, and was mainly known for his still life paintings that oftentimes used the vanitas theme. His father probably trained him as his style resembles his father’s. Although born in Antwerp, he worked and lived in Copenhagen while employed as a court painter during his adult life.


Just as in the case of his father, Francis made use of the trompe-l’oeil technique to incorporate various optical illusions in his paintings. While not employing the technique to paint hyperrealistic windows in his Flemish vanitas paintings, Francis chose to depict bundles of letters, open small wooden doors from wall cabinets, and other similar objects. He and his father moved with this a bit further from the traditional depiction of vanitas paintings that usually emphasize objects such as skulls, candles, and musical instruments placed on a table in a dim-lit room.


The Famous Dutch Vanitas Still Lifes

pieter claesz vanitas spinario rijksmuseum
Vanitas Still Life with the Spinario by Pieter Claesz., 1628, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Dutch vanitas paintings became very popular in the form of still-lifes. This can be seen through famous 17th-century painters like Pieter Claesz. (c.1597-1660) or Willem Claesz. Heda (c. 1593-1682). Both painters contributed highly to popularizing dinner piece paintings, a style that arranged different types of food on a table in a dinner-like manner but without any human presence, which had, at times, vanitas characteristics. Some of the paintings of the two artists, who both worked in Haarlem, feature quite directly a skull to remind us of mortality, while other paintings simply use rotten food to symbolize the ephemerality of all living things.


As both painters worked in the same city and belonged to the St. Luke Painters’ Guild, it is very likely that they knew each other. Their subjects are very similar, and they both use a triangular composition to emphasize their dinner pieces. Placed in a rather dark room, the two make great use of whatever little light they represent in the composition to create an atmospheric and alluring look for their paintings. The viewer is instantly drawn to the many foods and objects placed on the table to observe them closely and meditate on their composition and meaning. The paintings, thus, create the perfect opportunity for their viewers to meditate on existence and life itself.


David Bailly: The Mystery Behind the Vanitas

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Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait of the Artist by David Bailly, 1651, via Lakenhal Museum, Leiden


One artist of this time who must be mentioned is David Bailly (1584-1657). He was the son of Peter Bailly, a Flemish immigrant and artist himself who moved to the university city of Leiden in the Dutch Republic. David studied under his father, as well as Cornelis van der Voort and engraver Jacob de Gheyn, thus receiving a robust artistic training.


To further his skills, he also traveled to parts of Germany and Italy, where he became acquainted with the artistic scene. After his return, he worked mainly in Leiden for both Dutch and foreign clients, such as German princes who commissioned him with portraits or historical scenes. Besides these commissions, he is now also remembered as a painter of still-lifes and vanitas paintings.


Out of his known works, it is the vanitas paintings that piqued the most interest due to their unusual and mysterious nature. Probably the most famous vanitas work of his is the Vanitas still life with a self-portrait of the painter, a painting which gave rise to a lot of questions over the years. For example, it was unclear whether it truly was a self-portrait or not, as the painting contains two portraits: one of a young man and one of an older man, the latter identified as the self-portrait of the painter. Some historians believed that the young man was related to David, while others thought it was his self-portrait. But then, why have a painting with two self-portraits at once? Luckily, it was established that the two men are Bailly. It is speculated that the intention was to illustrate the vanitas message, the passing of time as a young Bailly is holding his future old self.


Some More Artists of Dutch Vanitas & Flemish Vanitas Artists to Read On

vanitas books jan lievens rijksmuseum
Vanitas Still Life with Books by Jan Lievens, ca. 1627, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The Dutch vanitas and the Flemish vanitas genre go way beyond the painters mentioned. As it can be seen, a number of the painters classified as “Dutch” are, in fact, immigrants themselves or children of Flemish immigrants, so the distinction between Dutch and Flemish in this context has to be considered carefully. It is not necessarily the origin of the painter that establishes this category but rather the tradition and influence under which the paintings were done.


If vanitas still life paintings were done under a Catholic influence and in Flemish territory, then they are more likely to be Flemish. On the other hand, if the paintings were done by a Flemish painter under the influence of the Protestant Reformation, where the painter might have been an immigrant as well, then it is more likely for the paintings to be considered part of the Dutch vanitas.


Other vanitas artists who merit attention include Harmen Steenwyck (1612-1656), Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684), and Abraham van Beyeren (c. 1620-1690), who helped popularize this genre both inside and outside the borders of the Dutch Republic.


The Flemish artists who also brought great contributions, although some of them are not primarily known for their vanitas paintings, are Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), Adriaen van Utrecht (1599-1652), Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), and Osias Beert (c. 1580-1624).


While some artists took an experimental approach to vanitas still life, others kept to a traditional representation. Nonetheless, their works helped consolidate this artistic theme that runs throughout the centuries up until today.

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By Anisia IacobMA Art History, MA in PhilosophyAnisia Iacob holds an MA in both Art History and Philosophy at Leiden University. She holds a BA in Art History where she focused on 17th century Dutch vanitas painting and a BA in Philosophy where she researched fashion and embodied cognition. With a keen interest in anything and everything, her research interest goes from history to neuroscience, attesting to her curious personality. Besides studies, she works as a contributing writer. Anisia looks forward to finishing her two MAs and starting a PhD in Philosophy.