Vanitas, circa 1675

Oil on canvas, 50 x 64 cm

Traces of an illegible signature on the edge of the musical score Signed in the lower left-hand corner: "AP."; on the frame: "Antonio de Pereda"


Edwaert Collier

Breda, Netherlands, 1642 – London, 1708

Hitherto considered the work of an anonymous 17th-century Frenchman, given that the references to Pereda cannot be credited, we propose to attribute this piece to the Dutch artist Edwaert Collier (several different spellings of his first and last names appear in period sources).

He was born in Breda, a Dutch town at the time, to a tobacco merchant who died in 1651. From there he went to Haarlem and joined the local painters' guild in 1664; his master may have been Vincent Laurensz Van der Vinne. In his early works—the first are dated in 1661—we can see the influence of the monochrome style employed in still lifes by Van der Vinne, Pieter Claesz and Johannes Vermeulen. In 1667 Collier moved to Leiden and joined its guild in 1673, the year of his first wife's death. He remarried in 1677, and again in 1681. He settled in Amsterdam in 1686, where he became a guild member in 1688 and had four children. In 1693 he moved to London, where he primarily painted illusionistic works; he died there and was buried at St. James's Church, Piccadilly, as a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.

The excellent doctoral dissertation of Minna Tuominen (Helsinki, 2014) mentions 180 works by this artist, many of which are held in approximately twenty major museums in Europe, the United States and Japan, including a fair number of signed and dated pieces. This is the first work in Spain to be attributed to Collier.

The term vanitas comes from the first and last verses of Ecclesiastes (1:2 and 11:8), "vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas", a commentary on the perishable nature of worldly possessions that man always seeks to accumulate. Among Protestants and Catholics, this idea was developed iconographically in the form of objects that symbolise the riches and vanities of the world.

On a table with a lavish fringed cloth and rich draperies hanging behind it, the artist has arrayed symbols of power (sceptre and crown) and wealth (coins and a casket with chains and necklaces), and allusions to love (small portrait of an elegant lady, similar to the 1675 portrait at the Szépművészeti Múzeum in Budapest), sensory pleasure (perfume jar) and amusement (playing cards and dice, sheet music and trumpet). The globe suggests the universality of these temptations and the mirror hints at human pride, while the clocks remind us that the inexorable passage of time will put an end to all vanity.

Proliferated in both the northern and southern Netherlands, and in France and Spain as well. The growing popularity of this genre in Collier's day has been linked to the cultural influence of the University of Leiden, the city where the painter lived. In addition to the three Haarlem painters mentioned above, we must also mention Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris in Leiden, Carstian Luyckx and Jan Davidsz. de Heem in Antwerp, and Simon Renard de Saint-André in Paris, all of whom painted works similar to this one. However, this piece is closer to Collier's style. A constantly repeated motif in his work is the lettered sign, with different texts alluding to the idea of vanitas. Here the perfume jar replaces other products of the silversmith's craft, and the skull that appears in a considerable number of his paintings is missing. The jumbled arrangement of objects that take up the entire space, the emphasis on warm colours and the chiaroscuro effects are all typical of Collier, who knew from extensive experience how to suggest the right degree of decorative opulence. [José Manuel Cruz Valdovinos]