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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Recounting Time

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Jonathan Anderson

David Bailly depicts himself as a youth in his twenties holding a portrait of himself in his late fifties—all of which he painted in his late sixties. In some sense, he folds the course of his life back on itself, creating an image with a profoundly strange temporal structure. Taking up the language of Ecclesiastes, Bailly’s painting is ‘an attempt to bind together the events of a life, to knit together the elements into a whole that makes sense’ (Martin 2006: 576).

In the process, Bailly sets his 1642 oval self-portrait as the ‘hinge’ of the image. He places it on the dominant vertical axis that runs through the corner of the back wall (which creates a sharp light–dark division) and the corner of the table—a vertical division that bisects both the oval portrait and the bubble hovering above it. Everything to the left of this axis is associated with the youthful Bailly: a clean palette ready for use, a flute (commonly associated with Dionysian exuberance), coins denoting early career successes, his hand nimbly holding the maulstick. Meanwhile, the jumble to the right intermingles luxury goods with strong allusions to ageing and dying: the bezoir, smouldering candle, skull, etc. Naomi Popper-Voskuil argues that the drawings on the wall reinforce this juxtaposition by invoking two Greek philosophers commonly featured in Dutch vanitas painting: ‘The young, gay lute-player [to the upper left] stands for the image of the laughing Democritus, the somber looking old man [to the right] for that of the weeping Heraclitus’, who each ‘laugh and cry respectively at the vanity of this world’ (Popper-Voskuil 1973: 68).

The folded logic of Bailly’s painting, resourced by Ecclesiastes, is confronting not the meaninglessness of life but its transience and our inability to resolve the losses and ruptures created thereby: ‘What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted’ (Ecclesiastes 1:15). Indeed, the fleetingness is so painful precisely because the fragile gift of life is so thick with meaning.

 

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

Popper-Voskuil, Naomi. 1973. ‘Selfportraiture and Vanitas Still-Life Painting in 17th-Century Holland in Reference to David Bailly’s Vanitas Oeuvre’, Pantheon, 31: 58–74