David Bailly made this painting late in his life (age 67), but he portrays himself as a young man at the beginning of his career.
The young artist holds a maulstick (a device for achieving intricate brushwork) and presents what is presumably the object of his labours: a portrait of himself as an older man. This oval image-within-the-image is a self-portrait painted in 1642 on the occasion of Bailly’s marriage (at age 58), which marked a highpoint in his life both personally and professionally. The second oval portrait depicts his wife Agneta, who by 1651 had probably recently died of an illness of which we have no record—the small ball and chain on the table is a bezoir for steeping medicines; Agneta’s image is flanked by a snuffed candle and a ceremonial (funeral) wine flute; and the statuette of St Sebastian (a patron saint of plague victims) in agony seems to stare directly at her portrait. With this painting, the aged Bailly is seemingly confronting his youthful self and grappling with the joys and sorrows of the intervening decades, facing the contingencies of his ‘own embodied mortal existence as unfolding among things, before others, in time, and toward death’ (Martin 2006: 577).
Scattered across the table are an array of vanitas symbols denoting life’s fleetingness: an overturned goblet, wilting roses, a disused pipe, books laid shut, sand running through an hourglass, a skull. Three delicate bubbles float above the table as emblems of impermanence: homo bulla (‘man is a bubble’). The knife on the table in the foreground directs the viewer, as does the skull’s downward gaze, towards the lower right corner of the canvas, where an unrolled paper bears a Latin inscription from Ecclesiastes 1:2—vanitas vanit[at]um / et omnia vanitas—a phrase that, in the logic of Bailly’s imagery, cuts painfully deep. Ecclesiastes’s sorrowfulness pervades the painting, lamenting the bitter futilities that compromise human life and unravel our labours (1:3), perceptions (1:8), and the memory of those we love (1:11).
Martin, Wayne M. 2006. ‘Bubbles and Skull: The Phenomenology of Self-Consciousness in Dutch Still-Life Painting’, in A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed. by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons), pp. 559–84
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
5The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already,
in the ages before us.
11There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to happen
among those who come after.
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.