I decided to try another “re-creating art” project. (If you haven’t read about the “Getty Museum Challenge,” here is one of several articles including a number of examples of what people have done.) I had previously not wanted to do a still life, because the primary challenge seemed to be finding enough fresh fruit. But as I looked through some more paintings today at various museum websites, I noticed a few paintings that featured violins, and thought I could make use of the violin that has sat in my front hall closet for years. (I did get it out a few years ago and attempted to tune it, but only succeeded in breaking a string.) The paintings that include people looked too difficult for me to recreate, but then I found some still lifes.
I had always thought about still lifes primarily as exercises in painting colors and contours, but I learned today how much symbolism is involved in many of them. This post, which includes the painting I chose for this project, explains what a number of common objects in still lifes represent. This made the project much more interesting to me, as well as a challenge to find the various objects needed.
The painting I decided on is by Pieter Claesz and is titled “Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball.” (Actually I’ve seen a few variations in the wording of the title, at the various websites where I’ve seen it, but this seems to be the most common.) Aside from the fact that it includes a violin, along with other objects I thought I could find, I just like the painting itself, as well as the symbolism expressed.
According to what I have read, the skull, not surprisingly, represents human mortality. This genre of painting is called “vanitas” and was intended to remind the viewer of the transience of human life. The pocket watch (lower left) suggests the passing of time (and the need to use it wisely). The overturned glass, similarly, alludes to the brevity of the pleasures of life, now drained out. The glass ball also may be intended to suggest the fragility of life, as it could be so easily broken (it also resembles a soap bubble, even more ephemeral).
The violin, from what I have read, represents the luxury of the arts, something only the wealthy could afford, a pleasure which, like everything else, was transient. Music, of course, is very transient, only lasting in the memory once it has been played. (Recordings were of course wholly unknown at the time this was painted.) The books and papers, and the writing implements (the feather is a quill pen and rests on an inkwell) that go along with them, represent human knowledge and its temporary nature. (Though personally I think books and writing also symbolize the lasting nature of knowledge which can be passed on to future generations.)
The cracked walnut (near the overturned glass) is also noted as a reminder of death, I suppose because it has been cracked open. I haven’t found anything about the symbolism of the key (at least I think that’s what is hanging from the blue ribbon next to the pocket watch), but no doubt it goes along with the rest of the symbolic objects. The black shape behind it is apparently a pen case, for the quill pen. I think the item right behind the violin is some kind of lamp or candle holder, which would also represent the transience of life because it is not currently giving light.
I thought of titling this post “The usefulness of useless things,” because most of the objects I used to recreate the scene are ones that have been lying around the house unused for so long (though no others as long as the violin). The skull was from Halloween decorations when my sons were younger. The watch I used is one I got after ten years working for a company in Pennsylvania, where I used to live, but stopped wearing when my wrist started getting irritated by the metal (despite it being a good-quality watch). The Parker box holds a nice pen which somehow got buried in stuff and never used (but still works fine even after so many years and is now sitting on my desk). My substitute for the glass ball is actually a candle holder (so it also substitutes for the lamp/candle holder), which I had not used in years (and had to pry out the remains of a very old candle from the center). And the key? It appears to go to a padlock but I have no idea whether it’s one I still own.
The books, of course, are far from unused, both being books I read in the past two weeks. The pen is one I use every day (it is not the Parker pen, which was still in the box at the time I took the picture). I had no walnuts on hand, but I do have pecans, and I enjoyed eating this one once I was done taking the picture.
The most difficult aspect of arranging the scene turned out to be balancing the violin and bow. I have no idea how Claesz managed it (I assume he did actually arrange all these objects in his studio). I finally managed it, but not in quite the same arrangement. Naturally I could not hope for the ingenious self-portrait that Claesz achieved with the reflection in the glass ball, but there is some kind of reflection on the glass “ball” in my photograph, and why knows? Maybe there actually is some small bit of me reflected in it.