Vanitas Still Life

This is the only example of still-life painting in the National Maritime Museum's collections. Believed to have been painted in 1694, a year after Edwaert Collier (c.1640/1 - 1708) arrived in London, the piece is one of comparatively few vanitas works he produced for the English market. Vanitas paintings were so-called because of their association with the book of Ecclesiastes and the oft-quoted lines ‘Vanity of vanities, said the teacher, all is vanity’. Collier incorporates the Latin ‘Vanitas Vanitatum Omnia Vanitas’ [Vanity, vanity, all is vanity] into the composition.

At a time when daily life was only a preparation for death and the transition of the soul to either heaven or hell, the message of the painting was clear. Those attributes valued by humans in their terrestrial existence, wealth, pleasure, power, knowledge, were mere vanity and had no significance in the face of eternity. Serving to labour the point further, the inscription in the top right hand corner, ‘Vita Brevis Ars Longa’ translates as ‘Life is short, art is long’.

Vanitas works stress the ultimate futility of terrestrial life, with particular reference to earthly knowledge, the arts, power, wealth, beauty and pleasure. They rely on certain instantly recognisable symbols to clearly deliver their message, many of which recur across the genre. Books, globes, scientific and musical instruments point to learning, literature and artistry. Jewellery, coins, purses and deeds suggest wealth, while crowns, swords and sceptres are attributes of worldly power.

Collier developed his own interpretation of the vanitas tradition, with repeating motifs of globes, books and musical instruments, carefully displayed atop a dark, fringed tablecloth. Books are easily interpreted as symbols of learning and through them, Collier alluded to such diverse subjects as history, science and poetry. Publications lay open with large chapter headings featuring descriptions of cities, countries, continents and, in this case, the world at large. They served to remind the viewer that just as human life is impermanent, so are knowledge and intellect.

The globe functions in much the same way as a symbol of learning, yet the interpretative possibilities extend further. This globe is inscribed with the words ‘AMERICA’, ‘MARE’ and ‘PACIFICUM’, and shows America stretching far to the north-west. Globes were obviously strongly associated with geography, featuring in atlases and geographical tracts, cosmography and even philosophy, ultimately forming a shorthand for science and scholarship more broadly. Through its depiction, an artist might demonstrate their knowledge of contemporary scientific achievements. But the globe was also a symbol of power and empire, closely associated with the seafaring exploits of maritime nations such as England and the Netherlands. The engraving of Caesar Augustus invites a comparison between Imperial Rome and the early modern empires of the English and Dutch. Yet the very purpose of the vanitas painting is to assert that all earthly power is ultimately transitory – mere vanity – and doomed to disappear, as indeed had the Roman Empire along with its rulers.

The instruments on display are a recorder, a lute and what appears to be a shawm, a renaissance precursor to the modern oboe. Musical instruments were a regular feature of vanitas still lifes, a meditation on music as a transient art form, each note driving the melody closer and closer to its completion. When the musicians release their instruments, silence resumes, providing the artist with a powerful metaphor for human mortality. Music was also closely associated with earthly pleasure and the command of music over the soul was a recognised reality. Certain instruments held added symbolism, the lute, in particular, implied either marital love or erotic lust, representing the female reproductive system, while the flute, or recorder, was a clear phallic reference.

Object Details

ID: ZBA6948
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Collier, Edwaert
Date made: 1694
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London; purchased with the assistance of the Society for Nautical Research Macpherson Fund
Measurements: Painting: 753 mm x 629 mm; Frame: 928 x 801 x 70 mm Weight: 13.8kg

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