Historic Painting: “Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols” by David Bailly, 1651.

self portrait with vanitas symbols by david bailly

This curious painting is obviously of the Old Masters school of the 17th century, and in fact was painted by Dutch artist David Bailly about 1651, evidently a portrait of himself. This is, however, more than just a self-portrait or even a slightly odd one. Bailly could have painted just himself staring out of a frame, but instead he chose to include the strange objects on the table in front of him: pictures of both men and women, flower blossoms, a glass of what looks like beer but is most probably oil of some kind, jewelry, and most prominently a human skull. Notice also the soap bubbles drifting inexplicably through the scene, as if there’s a small child with a bubble wand just out of sight.

These are called “Vanitas symbols,” and, strange as they seem, they have a long tradition in European art. You may have heard of a convention called Memento mori, which are “reminders of death”: objects and visual symbols intended to remind viewers of the nearness and easiness of death. Skulls are the most common of these. Vanitas symbols encompass a slightly broader range, intending to communicate not just death but the fragility and transience of life. This is obviously what the flowers are intended to mean, and I think it’s why the soap bubbles appear too. In moments these bubbles will pop and cease to exist, but for the instant the painting depicts they’re perfect and robust. They won’t last long, though.

You will also notice that Bailly appears as a young man, perhaps even a teenager. In fact he was in his late 60s when he painted this, having been born in Holland in 1584. I believe the man whose picture he’s holding is intended to be Bailly as he looked in old age when the painting was completed. Bailly’s life, typical for a Golden Age painter, seems itself full of transience and delicacy, like the fading flower of youth. A wealthy and privileged young man, he drifted around Europe as he learned the arts, often working for German princes, practicing what was then the popular art of still life that dominates Old Masters works of this period. Nearing the end of his life–Bailly died in 1657–he might have thought his own existence was transient and ephemeral, like flowers or soap bubbles, and soon he would be no better than the skull that appears on his desk. As usual, this painter wants to leave us with a lot to think about.

This image is in the public domain.
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2 Comments on Historic Painting: “Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols” by David Bailly, 1651.

  1. Very interesting, thanks. 🙂

  2. Robin Ridley // January 24, 2016 at 1:25 pm // Reply

    I find it fascinating how many symbols in art works, once commonly understood, just pass over our head. I was surprised to read that the image of a recently extinguished candle in a still life is a symbol of the presence of God.

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