Prof. Dr. Alfred Kadisch, Vienna 1859-1930 Private collection Vienna
Dr. Fred Meijer formerly of the Reichsbüro für Kunstdokumentation in Den Haag describes the work as an extraordinary, highly qualitative painting of great significance.
In his article he describes this interesting painting with comparisons.
The painting has been documented at the RKD in The Hague since 1929.
Dr. Fred Meijer
Unidentified Artist, c. 1625 – 1650?
A Vanitas still life. Around a skull, is a grouping of objects: books of various sizes, a candlestick, a palette and brushes, a pewter tankard, a glass bottle and a rummer. In addition, there are various animals: a flying bat, a mouse, a dead and a live frog, and an owl.
Oil on canvas, 55 x 79 cm
Provenance: Collection Dr. Alfred Kadisch (1859-1930), Vienna, by 1929; his sale, Vienna, C.J. Wawra, 22/24 September 1930, lot 49, as by P. Schotanus (not illustrated).
Literature: not published.
This intriguing painting is a unique example in the large group of Vanitas still lifes that were painted in Europe in the seventeenth century, particularly in the low countries. It combines traditional elements of such paintings, common to this type of image, with uncommon motifs such as live animals. The still life has been executed in a refined manner of painting, with accurate attention to detail, and a fine understanding of the play of light, which all add to the sense of depth and volume of the image.
The human skull, prominently displayed in the centre, the candle, and the tattered book all refer to the brevity of human life on earth, and the vanity and temporality
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of man’s existence. The skull is the ultimate memento mori symbol (‘remember death’). In many Vanitas still lifes candles and/or time pieces appear, representing the time, ticking or burning away. The candle in this painting has burned down to a tiny stump: there is little time left and the candle has been extinguished. Books contain texts that can guide man in life or that record knowledge and wisdom, which are bound to our earthly existence. The small book supporting the skull may be a book of prayers or psalms, helping man to prepare for the afterlife. Curiously, the cover of the large book in the centre has (illegible) writing on it and looks more like a page inside a book, with an open rectangular space in the upper left corner, probably for a (decorated) capital letter. The other features, however, are not commonly connected with the theme of vanitas or memento mori. The owl and the bat are animals of the night and as such symbols of sleep and oblivion. The mouse is a scavenger and both mice and frogs are eaten by owls. Toads, akin to frogs, occasionally also served as a symbol for death. In about 1630, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger (1609-1645) painted a small still life of a single dead frog, subtly but clearly intended as a Vanitas still life (fig. 1). The drinking vessels to the right – a pewter tankard, a glass bottle, and a rummer – are no standard symbols of vanity, but in this context probably refer to earthly pleasures, to be left behind after death. Last, the palette and brushes are also no common vanitas symbols, although they occasionally occur in combination with regular Vanitas symbols such as a skull, for instance in a still life from about 1660 by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (before 1630-after 1675) from c. 1660 (fig. 2). In such a context, and here as well, the painter’s implements probably refer to the vanity of recording earthly matters in images, in analogy to the vanity of recording earthly matters in books by means of text.
The authorship of this Vanitas still life, for the time being, unfortunately, remains unsolved. In 1929, the then owner consulted the eminent Dutch art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863-1930), one of the foremost connoisseurs of Dutch seventeenth-century painting of his time.1 On the basis of a black-and white photo, de Groot concluded that the painting was the work of the Frisian painter Petrus Schotanus (1610-1669/75). Despite Hofstede de Groot’s usually excellent judgment, in hindsight, this attribution cannot be upheld. In contrast to the present painting, Schotanus’s handling was rather forceful and bold, and his palette and lighting differ substantially (fig. 3). Also, as far as known, Schotanus never included a skull in his compositions, so it is puzzling how and why de Groot came to his conclusion. Attributions of unsigned paintings can be established on the basis of a combination of style and handling, including the palette, and choice of motifs. Often, painters produced several works representing the same subject, using identical objects in more than one painting, which allows positive comparison of signed works with unsigned examples. In the case of Vanitas still lifes, the skull can often be helpful in the identification of the painter, because of its individual characteristics, such as shapes of details, number and placement of
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teeth and specific damage. The skull in this painting, for instance, has hole in the temple, which suggests that the individual to whom it belonged may have died of violence. No painting with the same skull could thus far be identified, however. Neither could the same owl, bat, mouse or any of the depicted objects be traced in other paintings. Also the style and handling in general could not be connected with those of any known painter, so far. When such similarities cannot be found, it is almost impossible to reach an attribution. This is not uncommon, however, as many seventeenth-century paintings remain unattributed, also works of high quality, Vanitas still lifes not in the least. Anonymous examples of excellent quality can be found in major collections, such as the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (figs. 4 and 5), as well as in private collections (fig. 6). Dating a painting can also be done on the basis of stylistic characteristics, and on the basis of the represented objects. Also in this respect the present painting is exceptional. The stylistic features, such as light, composition and palette, point to the first half and, more probably, the second quarter of the seventeenth century. The rather monochrome, brownish palette recalls the works of the Haarlem painters of monochrome meal still lifes and of monochromatic landscapes from the 1630s in particular. The datable objects, however, the brass candlestick and the drinking vessels, in part are earlier. The model of the candlestick is Gothic, which would date it perhaps more than a century earlier than the painting. And the heavy pewter tankard appears to be sixteenth-century rather than later. The bottle and the rummer, in contrast, are seventeenth century, probably not earlier than circa 1620. Thus it seems that the painter was also playing with temporality in the choice of his objects.
The use of such a monochrome palette suggests that the painting is Dutch, but it should not be excluded, also because of its uncommon iconography, that it is not and that it may perhaps be German. Notwithstanding these uncertainties, this is a most interesting painting of excellent quality that represents seventeenth-century ideas about life and death in an extraordinary manner.
Dr. Alfred Kadisch, who is recorded to have owned this painting at the end of his life, and perhaps already much earlier, was a Viennese lawyer. The 1930 auction of his estate included 144 lots, almost half of which were miniatures. The first 59 lots in the auction catalogue were old paintings, most of them Italian, and a number of Dutch, Flemish, and German works, mainly landscapes and interiors. Many of these paintings did not have an attribution. Judging from the few works that were illustrated in the auction catalogue, the Kadisch collection of paintings was not of a notable level of quality, and as such this painting must have stood out because of its high quality.2
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1 A. Bosschaert II, signed, oil on copper, 12,5 x 17,5 cm. Paris, Fondation Custodia, inv. no. 182 2 C.N. Gijsbrechts, signed, oil on canvas, 94 x 121 cm. Location unknown
3 P. Schotanus, signed, oil on panel, 82 x 59 cm, Private Collection
4 Unidentified artist, oil on canvas, 45 x 56 cm. The Hague, Mauritshuis, inv. no. 654
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5 Unidentified artist, oil on panel, 27 x 53 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum inv. no. SK-A-2365 6 Unidentified artist, dated 1636, oil on panel, 36 x 48 cm. Private collection, Sweden
1 C. Hofstede de Groot was the founder of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (now RKD, Nederlands Instituut voor Kunstgeschiedenis / Netherlands Institute for Art History) in The Hague. The photo from his estate, which he received from Kadisch in March 1929, is at the RKD in the file of anonymous works in the section of Dutch seventeenth-century vanitas still lifes.
2 It was not illustrated in the catalogue, however, probably because it was of an exceptional subject.
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