Harmen van Steenwyck
Biography of Dutch Realist Painter of Vanitas Still Lifes.

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Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life
(1640) National Gallery, London.
By Harmen van Steenwyck, who
specialized in vanitas painting,
a form of Christian art that used
symbols to convey a moral message.

Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56)
Leading Exponent of Vanitas Painting


Life and Works
Vanitas Paintings
Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (1640)
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Among the leading Dutch Realist artists of the Delft/Leiden school, Harmen Steenwyck became one of the best still life painters of his time, specializing in the genre of vanitas still life painting, during the early years of Dutch Realism (c.1600-80) in Protestant Holland. In the field of still life pictures he ranks alongside his uncle David Bailly (1584-1657), as well as other exceptional painters like Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83), Pieter Claesz (1597-1660), Willem Kalf (1622-93) and Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1681). He is best known for his masterpiece "An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life" (1640, National Gallery, London). Other exceptional paintings by Harmen Steenwyck include: "Still Life with Skull, Books, Flute and Whistle" (1646, Kunstmuseum Basel); "Still Life with Earthen Jar, Fish and Fruit" (1652, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam); "Still Life with Fish in a Colander, Peaches, a Bucket, Berries and a Cucumber" (1652, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Life and Works

Harmen Evertz Steenwyck was born in 1612 in Delft, later the birthplace of Jan Vermeer, the leading figure in Dutch Realist genre painting. Steenwyck and his brother Pieter were sons of Evert Steenwyck - a spectacle and lens maker in Delft - and both brothers became pupils of their uncle, the highly talented artist David Bailly, who lived and worked in Leiden. Bailly is sometimes mistakenly credited with the invention of the vanitas genre (it was invented earlier). Steenwyck trained with his uncle from 1628 for five years. After this, in 1633, he rejoined his brother in Delft where they shared a successful studio. In 1636, Steenwyck joined the Guild of Saint Luke in Delft, which enabled him to take on pupils. He travelled to the Dutch East Indies for a year in 1654 and returned to work in Delft for the remaining few years of his life. By this time he was recognized as the leading exponent of vanitas still lifes, painting in smooth, invisible brushmarks, with strong tonal contrasts and a warm, golden palette. He worked in a radiant and exceptionally realistic manner - reminiscent of Gerrit Dou (1613-75) and Jan Lievens (1607-74) - usually painting intricately detailed fruit and flowers that illustrated the vanitas theme. He died in Leiden sometime after 1656. For more Dutch painters, see: Old Masters (c.1200-1700).

Vanitas Paintings

The vanitas genre of Dutch Baroque art, of which Steenwyck was the leading exponent, was a type of Protestant Reformation Art (c.1520-1700) consisting of still life pictures containing symbolic objects that conveyed a Christian moralistic message. Each vanitas picture is like a visual sermon based on a verse from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (1:2;12:8) "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity". Vanitas works urge the viewer to avoid placing too much importance in earthly wealth and pleasures, in case they become an obstacle on the path to salvation. All this is well illustrated by Steenwyck's still life An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life". Vanitas works of 17th century Dutch painting tend to be small-scale works, in contrast to the more grandiose examples of Vatican-approved Catholic Counter-Reformation art (1560-1700).

Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (1640)

All the objects in this still life painting (top left) have been carefully selected to symbolize certain vanitas elements, in order to convey the message which is outlined in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy... [instead] ...store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy." (Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21)

Each item in the painting has a symbolic meaning. The Skull is a memento mori - a cautionary reminder that even for the wealthiest citizen, there is no escaping the inevitability of death, and heavenly judgment. The chronometer also signifies the passing of time. The shell, being a rare collector's item, is a symbol of earthly wealth (as is the purple silk fabric), while the books and the musical instruments symbolize human knowledge. All these elements symbolize futile quests for earthly riches or the vanity of knowledge. The Samurai sword, representing military power, is included to show that even the might of arms cannot defeat death. Steenwyck also employs a striking compositional device to reinforce the symbolic meaning of the painting and enhance the dramatic tone of the work: he depicts a beam of light (a Christian symbol of the eternal) falling onto the skull (the principal reminder of human mortality), thus emphasizing the gulf between earthly decay and the eternity of heaven.

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• For more about the main painting genres in the Netherlands, please see: Netherlandish Renaissance Art (1430-1580).

• For more about the greatest artists active in the Low Countries, please see: Northern Renaissance Artists (1430-1580).

• For more, about painting in Flanders, see: Flemish Painting (c.1400-1800); and Flemish Baroque Painting (1600-80).

Vanitas paintings by Harmen van Steenwyck can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe.


• For more biographical details about Dutch Old Masters, see: Homepage.

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