Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


CHRISTIAN VAN DONCK (Active Amsterdam, Circa 1653)

 A Young Man Writing at a Cloth Covered Table with a Globe, Statue, Violin, Hourglass, Playing Cards, Book, Ink Pots, a Document, and Other Objects

signed on the shield in the upper left Chritian v Donck

oil on canvas

30 ¾ x 46 inches          (78.5 x 117 cm.)

The known oeuvre of Christian van Donck, also called Christian van Dam is tiny. Only a few signed works are known. Similar to this painting, his subjects tend to focus on themes of scribes, money changers and vanitas. All other facts about the painter remain obscure.

In this work a well-dressed young man is seated at a table writing in a ledger. He is surrounded by an assemblage of worldly goods, all with symbolic meaning, related to the brevity of life. Although vanitas works were ostensibly an appeal for the rejection of worldly possessions in favor of living a more spiritually focused life, their popularity was dependent on the ability to dazzle the eye. It is a goal that Van Donck has fulfilled.

Looming over all the objects is a globe, which for seventeenth-century Holland was a sign of strength. “It symbolized the age of exploration and the worldwide spread of Dutch power. From Brazil to Indonesia, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Spitzenbergen Islands, Dutch sailed the world in pursuit of markets and tradable goods. Yet that (power)… could pass away ‘in the twinkling of an eye’.” [1]The violin and its accompanying music sheets produce song and notes “which like time are fleeting and transitory”. [2] Other objects related to the arts, such as the sculpture, engraving, books and documents symbolize the vanity of earthly accomplishments. The playing cards are representative of worldly pleasures as well as the inconstancy of luck. Thus, all is transitory, nothing lasts. Yet the inclusion of the hourglass points to the path forward. In vanitas paintings, sand is always shown in both orbs, never with the last grain sifted to the bottom. The viewer is reminded of the brevity of man’s earthly existence, but that there is the still time to seek redemption and focus on the spiritual aspects of life. [3]

[1] Raymond J. Kelly III, “Types of Vanitas Symbols” in To Be, Or Not to Be, Four Hundred Years of Vanitas Painting, Flint Institute of Arts, 2006, pp. 29-30.

[2] Karyn Esielonis, Still-Life Painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1994, p. 70.

[3] Raymond J. Kelly III, op.cit., p. 26.


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