Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait by David Bailly

David Bailly

Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, 1651, Oil on panel, 89.5 x 122 cm, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, S1351, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Grieving Time

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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).

 

References

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


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