Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


JAN OLIS (Gorcum circa 1610 – Heusden 1676)

A Vanitas: A Young Woman Holding a Skull

oil on canvas

27 ½ x 23 ½ inches     (69.8 x 59.6 cm.)


Private Collection, The Netherlands


Jan Olis was born around 1610 in the town of Gorcum (Gorinchem) in the province of Holland.  It is believed that he was related to the painter (verwer) Jacob Olis who is documented as residing in Gorcum in 1608 or 1609 and was perhaps his father and first teacher. [1]  Any further information about Jan Olis’s training is unknown, although there were several notable painters living in the rather small town of Gorcum.  They were Gerard van Kuijll (1604-1673) best known for his Caravaggesque compositions the result of his apprenticeship with Gerard van Honthorst in Utrecht, Jacob van der Ulft (1622-1689) and Hendrik Verschuring (1627-1690) who painted Italianate landscapes among other things.  Verschuring was a pupil of Jan Both in Utrecht and it is very possible that Olis served an apprenticeship in that city.  Many painters from Utrecht went to Italy to study Roman as well as Renaissance art.  We know that Olis was in Rome in 1631 as a painting of Diana and Actaeon (formerly in the Lüdinghausen-Wolff Collection, Mitau) is signed Jan Olis Roma pinsit A° 1631.  There he may have met Gerard van Kuijll who stayed in Rome until 1631.  Other painters from Gorcum in Rome at the same time were the virtually unknown Alexander van Wevelinckhoven and Steven Huybertsz van’t Hoff. [2]

In 1632 Olis became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Dordrecht [3] where there would have been many more possibilities for work than existed in Gorcum.  In February 1637 he married Catharina van der Beken, the widow of the wine merchant Willem Emonts. [4]  Catharina continued Emonts’s business, now officially registered under the name of Jan Olis, and it is for this reason that the artist at times was referred to as a wine merchant.  He is mentioned as having three pupils in 1638 and 1641.  In 1656 Olis moved to the town of Heusden (then in the province of Holland, now in North-Brabant) where he became an alderman in the city council.  In 1657 he became one of the burgomasters. In 1670 Olis is referred to as a conveymeester, a collector of tolls.  During these years he painted some remarkably sumptuous flower pieces, of which the Floral Bouquet from 1662 (Den Bosch, Noordbrandts Museum) is a good example. [5]  He died in Heusden on June 6, 1676.

Although not that well known, Olis’s artistic legacy is quite varied and the quality of his paintings are often of an exceedingly high level as demonstrated by A Young Woman Holding a Skull.  He painted works of genre that are mainly conversation pieces and cortegaardjes or guardroom scenes.  These are small sized figure paintings in the tradition of Anthony Palamedes (1601-1673) and Pieter Codde (1599-1678). Olis belongs to the same group of painters as Hendrick Pot (1585-1657) and Simon Kick (1603-1652).  Fine examples of his work in this tradition can be found in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Mauritshuis, The Hague and the National Gallery, London.

Olis also painted a number of paintings that featured larger figures [6] which include portraits and historical subjects.  A Young Woman Holding a Skull can be dated to the early 1640s.  Its high degree of finish reflects other works of this period such as a Family Portrait of 1642 or 1643 (Private Collection, Germany) and the Portrait of a Young Man, formerly in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. [7]  The face of the young woman is delicately painted, with white and pink flesh tones that are vividly contrasted against the bone of the skull.  The skull reflects the still life qualities of Pieter Claesz (1597-1660) and Willem Claesz Heda (1593/4-1680).  It obviously refers to vanitas, the skull being a very common symbol for the transience of time and the end of human life.  In this case it is combined with a clear spiritual connotation as the young woman’s eyes gaze towards the heavens seeking solace or guidance.  The textiles of her dress such as the velvet of her coat are exquisitely rendered, while the veil wound around her neck and shoulders adds to the etherealness of the scene.  Another example of this type of imagery in the oeuvre of Jan Olis is a painting in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon of an Old Man Praying which is datable to the 1650s. [8]  Striking by comparison are the disparity of the ages of the sitters in these two compositions.  While the aged subject of the Lyon painting is a typical portrayal of the expectant penitent awaiting salvation, Olis by presenting a youthful sitter succeeds in making the poignancy of her faith and hope more compelling.

Dr. Paul Huys Janssen



[1] F. Tissink, H.F. de Wit, Gorcumse Schilders in de Gouden Eeuw, Gorinchem, 1987, pp. 78-80.

[2] Ibid., p. 26.

[3] J. Loughman, “De Zichtbaere Werelt”, in Schilderkunst uit de Gouden Eeuw in Hollands oudste stad, exhibition catalogue, Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht, Zwolle, 1992, p. 252.

[4] A. Bredius, “Een en ander over Jan Olis” Oud Holland, 57, 1940, pp. 143-144.

[5] S. Segal, “Een bloemrijk verleden”, in Overzicht van de Noord-en Zuidnederlandse bloemschilderkunst, 1600-heden, Amsterdam/Den Bosch, 1982, no. 53.

[6] F.G. Meijer, “Jan Olis (c. 1610-1676) as a painter of larger figures”, Oud Holland, 118, 2005, pp. 92-102.

[7] Ibid., figs. 2 and 3.

[8] Ibid., fig. 15.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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