Vanitas Allegory, By Willem de Poorter (c. 1608-1649)

This painting, by the Dutch artist Willem de Poorter (c. 1608-1649), serves as an allegory about vanitas, Latin for vanity. A complicated relationship between life, possessions and death is portrayed in the artwork through its presentation of a woman and a grotesque skeletal figure interacting with a heaping pile of treasure in a dark and gloomy room. Although the painting is intended as an allegory of vanity, it also could serve as an allegory for humanity’s behavior toward wealth, in general. Particularly, the scene is curiously reminiscent of an ancient satirical description of humanity’s treatment of wealth that was penned by the writer, Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180). Envisioning Wealth as a personified god, Lucian—speaking in character as the arch-god Zeus—wrote that Wealth was always, “complaining that the rich kept you locked up so closely with bolts and keys and seals that you couldn’t even peep out and see daylight. At any rate that was your complaint to me, that you were stifled in total darkness. That’s why you appeared so pale and careworn, your fingers distorted with constant counting on them, and you threatened to run away if you got the chance” (Lucian, Timon the Misanthrope, section 13). Similarly, Willem de Poorter’s artwork displays a woman keeping her wealth in a prison-like environment, dominated by shadows and darkness. Unlike Lucian’s Wealth that was left in a sunless void, the painting of Willem de Poorter does have a bit of light, albeit it shines dimly through a small window that seems like it could be crisscrossed with metal bars. Also, likely to the displeasure of the woman in the painting, she must face an unsettling skeletal figure instead of the pale and worn god in Lucian’s satire.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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