Ignoring Vanitas (02 July)

[Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar, 1669. Oil on canvas, 77 x 65.5 cm. Image borrowed from Wikipedia. ]

Westermann argues that the origin of the objects, along with the wealth they represent, are what craft the message of Willem Kalf’s Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar (pictured on p. 117 of A Worldly Art). She writes that by using objects from the furthest corners of 17th-century Dutch influence and trade in this painting, Kalf chucks the identities these objects had in their original homes out the window and reassigns them ones as Dutch property and as symbols of Dutch prosperity. Further, she highlights the elegance of a watch visible in the painting over its purpose as a symbol of transience.

European colonial powers were of course masters of coldly reducing artifacts from other cultures to status symbols for their mantelpieces, and wealthy people then were as obsessed as they are now with owning and displaying expensive-looking objects, but whether or not these things matter in the historical and genre-specific context of this painting is what is contestable about the claim here. When looking at 17th-century Dutch still life paintings, one usually looks for what Westermann refers to as the “vanitas reference”—which object or symbol in this painting is going to remind us of the impermanent nature of almost everything in life and the inevitability of death? Often, these symbols were not so subtle, and reminders of death came simply in the form of skulls, as we see in paintings like Vanitas Still Life by B. Schaak from the Rijksmuseum website. In Kalf’s painting, the relevant symbol is the watch on the table, and the context of this painting means that the watch as a symbol of transience is more important than the watch as a symbol of wealth, or the origin of the other objects on the table.

Thinking about this post definitely got me pretty excited about still-life paintings, so I’m working on a tag in my Rijksstudio about those (which I may end up splitting into a few). Browsing through what they have, I’m also highlighting works with animals, landscapes with windmills, and ships at sea (specifically shipwrecks or storms).

Interesting Painting #1: Melchior d’Hondecoeter, Ducks, c. 1675 – c. 1680, oil on canvas, h 93 cm × w 116 cm

Ducks are my absolute favorite animals, so they were the first thing I searched for on the Rijksstudio website, and this one caught my eye.

Interesting Painting #2: Willem van de Velde (II), A Ship on the High Seas Caught by a Squall, Known as ‘The Gust’, c. 1680, oil on canvas, h 77 cm × w 63.5 cm × h 90.5 cm × w 78.5 cm × d 6.5 cm

Really dramatic scenes of ships at sea getting caught in storms always get my attention in museums, and I’m looking forward to finding this one and others like it in person when we visit the museum.


5 thoughts on “Ignoring Vanitas (02 July)

  1. Hi Joseph,

    I really enjoyed your argument about vanitas, I think that the theme it usually implies is one that I find most interesting. I know that we discussed it when my group visited the NGA when looking at certain pieces including ones that featured skulls. I also really enjoy looking at still lifes of ships, I find them really eye-catching. I think at times they can also carry some symbolize that follows vanitas as well.


  2. For your first essay
    To Joesph:

    I although I did not comment on this post, I do believe this to be Joesph’s most striking post/argument is his post titled Ignoring Vanitas. How he elaborates on Westermann’s argument that discussing trade and imports in the realm of the valuable objects depicted in Willem Kalf’s painting, Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar, alters the objects’ identities to “Dutch property and as symbols of Dutch prosperity” was one of the highlights for me in this post. I would also like to hear more about how when one is viewing a 17th-Century Dutch still life painting they, usually, look for what Westermann refers to as “vanitas reference”. Moreover, how does an object of symbol in this painting will draw back our memory of the “impermanent nature of almost everything in life and the inevitability of death?”. I am curious on how the meaning of transience in the watch ties with Westermann’s “vanitas reference”, and how it is more important than its origin or its symbolization of wealth. I also wonder what how these different meanings of the watch relate and possibly provide a double meaning to the watch within the painting. What did a watch, typically, symbolize during this time period in Dutch art? Obviously, Westermann’s book and further analyzation of this particular reading in Westermann’s book would be useful for your essay of this topic. I also think it would be beneficial to utilize Grootenbuer’s article when writing your essay. I hope you choose this topic…can’t wait to hear more about it.


  3. Very nice move to take Westermann’s idea about the “vanitas reference” in order to counter her interpretation of the watch in this painting. And nice especially to find a vanitas object in an otherwise not-so-deathly painting. On the surface, this does in fact seem to be about wealth–the vase and rug/tapestry from Asia, fruits from tropical locales. But you’ve very interestingly found at the very least a secondary and maybe primary meaning in the watch, as a reminder of time, and therefore, eventually, death, which will bring an end to the enjoyment of these finer things. It points up the fact that symbolic objects might be found in otherwise “realistic” paintings. This watch is not just a watch. But I wonder if it actually may have possessed both meanings simultaneously–maybe for viewers, perhaps for the patron, or at least for (and maybe only for?) the painter himself? Could it mean both at the same time? Could be a sort of in-joke for the painter, undercutting the overt meaning of the painting he was perhaps paid handsomely for (since paintings, too, could be luxury objects)? Also: Aidan, nice point about the flipping of values on domestic vs. imported goods: what imports today carry the luxury cache? What domestic ones do? Or do we find other reasons (patriotic) to value domestic vs. imported goods? (Then again, Dutch probably saw it as patriotic to value goods produced by its colonies–but did this apply to goods “merely” brought in by their (dominant) shipping fleet?


  4. Joe,

    Fantastic post here about the meaning of foreign objects in Dutch painting. I also think it’s interesting how representative these paintings are of the pride the Dutch took in being a colonial power. It’s noteworthy that today many in the West take pride in the very opposite, that is valuing national goods over international goods, which is evident in the rise of nationalism. Back then, the idea of having an object from hundreds or even thousands of miles away was a luxury and spoke to how strong your country was. I’m wanting to do some research now on how widespread this fascination with the exotic was. Perhaps the lower classes didn’t place such a high prize on these items (obviously they couldn’t afford them anyhow) just like today. Conservatives in the West prefer domestic food, music, and general culture and are reluctant to explore the foreign; perhaps there’s always been such a divide throughout history and that it is because the elite class could afford paintings that they reflect their values alone.


    1. Hi Aidan! That’s a terrific point—I hadn’t thought about how different classes of families would think of objects like this. I wonder if people with less money in the Netherlands in 1670 would have taken issue with the wealthy showing off objects like this, and whether they would have objected because the objects were foreign, or because they were extravagant, or not particularly cared at all. I think you’re absolutely right that when national identity gets tied to production, a rise in nationalism means a rise in the value of buying domestic goods. I’m sure there’s still a class of (wealthy) people somewhere who would love to buy a piece of pottery from another culture to show it off in the same way a Dutch burgher in 1670 would have, but I know that origin really matters to a lot of people. I can’t tell you how many customers I’ve had get very angry and ask me whether the popcorn bags we use at the movie theatre were made in China (for the record, I’m not sure where the bags were manufactured, but when I need to get the line moving I just tell them they were made in the U.S.).


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