Lot 277. Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (Dordrecht 1594 - 1652 (?), A vanitas still life with an angel blowing bubbles, inscribed on the tablet: Bereyt u selven/ want ghy sult/ sterven/ Eert te laet is ("Prepare yourself, for you shall die- before it is too late"), oil on canvas, 40 3/8 by 70 in.; 102.5 by 178 cm. Estimate 150,000 — 200,000 USD. Lot sold 374,500 USD. Photo: Sotheby's
Provenance: Private collection, Austria.
Note: This unique painting, only recently recognised as a work by Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp, founder of the Dordrecht school and father of the well-known landscape painter Aelbert Cuyp, is in many ways an exceptional work, both within the artist's oeuvre, and within Dutch seventeenth-century still-life painting in general. By 1622 Cuyp had apparently already attained such a reputation that he was chosen to portray the masters of the Dordrecht mint – his earliest known dated work. His oeuvre includes nearly every traditional seventeenth-century subject; apart from portraits he painted history subjects, genre, (figures in) landscape and still lifes.
In this exceptionally large vanitas still life, certain motifs can be linked directly with other works by Jacob Cuyp. Several of the flowers in the small vase to the left, of which the treatment is somewhat broader than one would expect of a specialized still-life painter, recur in other works by Cuyp. The topmost rose, for instance, is found together with the sprig of lilies-of-the-valley on the hat of the shepherdess in a painting recently acquired by the Dordrecht Museum.1 The hat of the shepherdess in a comparable painting in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is adorned with a similar combination of flowers, while the rose lying in front of her is identical to the rose in the bouquet in the present work.2 The boy in her lap shows us some buttercups - rare elements in (early) seventeenth-century Dutch flower paintings - that are similar to the ones included in the present vase.
The other strong connection with Cuyp's work is the cherub blowing bubbles to the right. The way he gazes directly at the viewer is typical of Cuyp's children as is his broad, rosy-cheeked face and the carefully modelled hands. Though he usually depicted children with straighter hair, the treatment of this putto's fuzzy hair can be best compared with Cuyp's rendering of sheep's wool, particularly in the Amsterdam painting. Finally, the portrayal of the little angel's garment is fully in keeping with the artist's handling of textiles, particularly of white shirts; compare for instance that of the grape harvester in St. Petersburg or of the shepherdess in Budapest.3
For the still life itself, the focus of the painting, we do not have much firm ground to attribute the work to Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp. Although painted with much confidence and strength, the handling appears to be more meticulously observed than one would expect of the artist. However, this should not surprise us as he could take great care in the handling of minutiae, as testified by his portraits. Moreover, in his two kitchen pieces, several of the details have been rendered with great care, such as the artichokes, the fish and the metal objects and in his portrayal of a fish market in Dordrecht the coins have been rendered so meticulously that they can actually be identified.4 Whilst the silver coins in the present vanitas can probably not be identified, they are painted with a similar sense of verisimilitude. The rendering of the gorget, which is partly hidden under the bowed instrument, and particularly of the nails in it, is reminiscent of the way in which Cuyp renders the armour of the sitter for a portrait that was recently on the art market.5
The above comparisons suggest a date of execution in the late 1620s or circa 1630. Close observation reveals that the paint layers of all parts are fully interwoven, which suggests that we can exclude that the work is a collaborative effort unless the two artists were fully collaborating and working on the painting at the same time. However, Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp can definitely be expected to be capable of the overall quality presented here and, moreover, there is no Dordrecht painter - still-life painter or other – that we know of who can be put forward as a realistic collaborator.
The artist has chosen to include a wide range of the traditional symbols of vanitas - the notion that life on earth is impermanent and thus both trivial and vain - and putti blowing bubbles are certainly among them. Elucidating examples, among them Hendrick Goltius' print from 1594 of a putto blowing bubbles while leaning on a human skull, have been published by Ingvar Bergström on various occasions.6 Human life is like a soap bubble: shiny but empty and gone before you know it. The same goes for music's brief pleasing sound, represented here by the large, violoncello-like bowed instrument. Flowers, by their nature, are also highly perishable: they bloom for a short time only to whither soon enough. Worldly riches, shown here in the form of costly silver and silver-gilt objects, silver coins and a large money pouch, are less perishable but they are of no use to their owner beyond the grave. And neither is worldly power, represented by the gorget. The books, whether they contain worldly wisdom or accounts – of finance or of one's life – seem to arrest life in a certain way, but they are not life itself. The spindle is the traditional attribute of Lachesis, one of the three fates, who spins the thread of human life. The hourglass shows that whatever happens, time passes and cannot be stopped. The skulls, finally, show us that this is what we will become: all living creatures are bound to die – and this is what the inscription on the writing tablet reminds us, in the midst of all this overwhelming host of symbols.8
Fred Meijer, Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie.
1. See S. Paarlberg (ed.), Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (1592-1652), exh. cat., Dordrecht 2002, p. 94, cat. no. 6, reproduced. That painting has an added strip of canvas at the top, without which its measurements are virtually identical to those of the Vanitas discussed here - which is far from a regular size.
2. Idem, p. 96(note 2), cat. no. 7, reproduced.
3. Idem, p. 100, cat. no. 9 (see note 2) and p.102, cat. no 10, both reproduced.
4. Idem, p. 104, cat. no. 11, and p. 65, fig. 69, both reproduced; and Idem, p. 92, cat. no. 5, reproduced.
5. Idem, p. 116, cat. no. 17, reproduced.
6. For instance his article 'Homo Bulla [...]' in the catalogue of the vanitas exhibition Les Vanités dans la peinture au XVIIe siècle in Caen, 1990, pp. 49-54.
7. For a previous owner of the painting the human skull apparently was too grim an element: it was painted out and only reappeared in recent cleaning.