Vermeer did painted allegories; we know at least two of them: Allegory of Faith and Allegory of Painting. However, although very fashionable in his time, there is a notable absence of “memento mori” symbols in Vermeer paintings. He never used typical vanitas symbols like skulls, watches, decaying flowers or just snuffed candles. Many of his paintings included musical instruments (music was an indulgence of the senses) but they were normally related to the scene e.g “Girl interrupted in her music”, “The Music Lesson:” , “Woman with a lute”, etc. He must have known about these pieces, they were very popular in the United Provinces. Maybe, because he converted to Catholicism when married.
However, according to the Essential Vermeer site “A Lady writing”, in display at the National Art Gallery (NGA) in Washington has a painting with a bass viol in the background. They believe is the same found in the inventory compiled after Vermeer’s death, listed as “bass viol with a skull”. If true, this would make it the only clear Vanitas presence in any Vermeer painting.
I downloaded the high resolution image and inspected it as best as I could and I can’t see the skull. Maybe I have to go to Washington to confirm it.
In any case, following my theme of exploring possible still life themes with Vermeer characteristics, I thought that the vanitas theme had to be addressed. This is the premise behind the “A Vanitas for the Stadhouder”.
The premise of the image is that Vermeer has been commissioned by the Stadhouder or City Holder. Normally one of the most powerful persons in the province. As he is immensely rich, so he thought that it would be a good idea to make a statement about his adherence to Dutch traditions of modesty and spiritual elevation; an unwritten rule of acceptable behavior at the time.
According to my story, the Stadhouder commissioned Vermeer to paint a "Vanitas" for his office. These were fashionable pieces that communicated restrain and humility and adhesion to the established moral of standards at the time. A Vanitas painting with his own portrait would serve as reminder to all visitors that he is fully aware of the transient nature of life and therefore the need to avoid vanities while maintaining a adherence to the Calvinist teachings.
He chose the pieces wisely, following the latest trends set by Pieter Claesz from Harlem and Steenwijck in Leiden. On the table, a rich oriental carpet has been pushed aside to make room for a mirror as symbol of vanity and therefore something to be avoided, a skull to remind us that death is unavoidable and that we should not be overwhelmed by earthly riches, an hourglass remind the viewer that time is passing quickly and therefore should be used wisely. The smoke from the extinguished candle symbolizes the ephemeral nature of our existence, wealth and knowledge.
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