Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


EDWAERT COLLIER (Breda fl. before 1663 – London 1708)

 A Vanitas Still Life

oil on panel

17 x 21 ½ inches          (43 x 54.5 cm.)


Otto Naumann, Ltd., New York, circa 1993 where purchased by

Private Collection, Washington, D.C., until the present time


Edwaert Collier may have first trained in Haarlem as a number of his early works bring to mind the monochrome still lifes of Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda as well as paintings by Jan Jansz van de Velde III and Vincent van der Vinne. From 1667 – 1691 Collier is documented as being in Leiden. In 1693 he went to London and worked there until about 1702. After 1702 he probably returned to Leiden. Collier was known for still lifes, trompe l’oeils of letter-racks and vanitas subjects. Inspiration for his letter-rack still lifes must have been drawn from examples by Samuel van Hoogstraten done in the 1650s and 1660s as well as works by Wallerant Vaillant and Cornelis Brisé.[1]

Collier’s vanitas subjects are based on a tradition in Leiden that began in the late 1620s with works by Jan Lievens, Jan de Heem and Gerrit Dou and continued with David Bailly, Harmen Steenwyck, Pieter Steenwyck, and Pieter de Ring among others. Collier in this work has laid before the viewer a banquet of objects emblematic of vanitas. Intended as a condemnation of worldly possessions, a reminder of the brevity of man’s earthly existence and an appeal to focus on the spiritual aspects of life, the popularity of these works also depended upon their ability to dazzle the viewer.[2]

Initially in this painting perhaps the most striking features are the painted texts. The Latin inscription Sic Transit Gloria Mundi in the foreground derives from Thomas à Kempis 1486 work De Imitatione Christi meaning – Thus passes the glory of the world. The open book Tooneel de Menschelijken Levens (The Showcase of Human Life) was written by the Dutch author Joost van den Vondel (1587 – 1679) and fittingly Collier has painted the chapter that begins with an image of Fortune, the inconstant goddess who bestows her favors randomly. A sheet of paper extended from the globe carries the Latin text Nemo Ante Mortem Beatus Dici Potest (No one can be called blessed before death). By tacking this onto the globe’s stand the message can be interpreted as worldly achievements and possessions are not a guarantee of eternal salvation. Protruding from the book in the lower right foreground is a slip of paper inscribed Vanitas Vanitatum, Latin for Vanity of Vanities from Ecclesiastes 1:2. Vanitas is the Latin translation for the Hebrew word hebel which means vapor or something unsubstantial. Hebel is used 38 times in the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes in connection with wisdom, toil, joy, fame, material possessions, etc. and all are found to be of no lasting consequence.[3]

Besides the texts heaped upon the table, covered in a green velvet cloth with gold fringes, on the left-side are a burning candle, brazier and bellows. Smoke as a vanitas emblem stemmed directly from Psalm 102:3 “For my days pass away like smoke.”[4] The closed bellows are unable to stoke the flame. The books are symbolic of the vanity of human knowledge[5] and tellingly Van den Vondel’s is depicted as already stained with curling and bent pages. The golden columbine cup-and-cover, jewel box filled with pearls, gold coins on chains and a money bag, as well as the pearl encrusted sword nearby are all emblematic of the frivolity of earthly possessions. A pocket-watch in the seventeenth century was another costly rarity[6] and for Collier’s purposes served as a reminder of the fleetingness of time. The terrestrial globe shows the continent of America, not often depicted at this point, and represents the vanity of learning. The magnificent crown, the ultimate symbol of worldly power, again on earth is a temporal state. Jacques de Gheyn (1565 – 1629) in one of the earliest vanitas engravings Mors Sceptra Ligonibus Acquat wrote “death makes kings’ scepters and peasant’s hoes the same”. The death of Charles I of England in 1649 at the hand of his subjects had shaken monarchies across Europe underscoring the truth of such pronouncements.[7] In the far right corner a skull completes the message.

We are very grateful to Fred G. Meijer of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie for his invaluable assistance in the writing of this entry and for confirming by first-hand inspection the painting to be by Edwaert Collier dating it in all probability to the 1690s.



[1] Biographical information taken from Adriaan van der Willigen & Fred G. Meijer, “Edwaert Collier” in A Dictionary of Dutch and Flemish Still-Life Painters Working in Oils 1525 – 1725, Primavera Press, Leiden, 2003, p. 64; and Walter Liedtke, “Edwaert Collier” in Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven, volume I, p. 130.

[2] Raymond J. Kelly, III, To Be, Or Not to Be, Four Hundred Years of Vanitas Painting, Flint Institute of Arts, 2006, p. 14.

[3] Bruce M. Metzger & Roland E. Murphy, eds., “Ecclesiastes” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.

[4] Ibid, p. 22.

[5] Ibid, p. 28.

[6] Ibid, p. 26.

[7] Ibid, p. 29.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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