Hidden Secret Discovered in 17th Century Dutch Painting
Royal Collection Trust
The Royal Collection is one of the world's finest and most comprehensive collections. Comprising beautiful examples of almost every type of fine and decorative art and housed in fifteen royal residences (and former residences) across the UK, the Collection is held in trust by the Monarch for the nation.
A major part of the Trust's remit is to make these works of art available to the public and they do this through a programme of outstanding exhibitions held at The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace and other royal residences across the UK. The latest exhibition at The Queen's Gallery is Portrait of the Artist, the first-ever exhibition to focus entirely on artists' portraits.
'A Vanitas' by Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten
Whilst preparing one particular painting for Portrait of the Artist conservators discovered a new element hidden in a 17th-century Dutch painting, Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten's A Vanitas which at first glance looks like a still life typical of the period.
Roestraten (c.1630–1700) was a pupil and son-in-law of Frans Hals. He established himself as a still-life painter in London in 1666 – he was injured in the Great Fire of London. He became especially well-known for his paintings of luxury items and seemed to enjoy encouraging viewers to search for hidden elements in his work. At least nine works by Roestraten feature reflected self-portraits.
A 'vanitas '(Latin, “vanity”) was a specific genre of still-life painting popular in Holland in the early 17th century. Containing objects symbolising the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly pride and pleasures, the vanitas encourages the viewer to consider their own mortality and to repent.
Roestraten's A Vanitas features a group of inanimate objects displayed on a chest. Various items, some coins, a silver jar, a silver pocket-watch on a silk ribbon, hint at greed and the acquisition of worldly possessions. A book is open to show a laughing Democritus. The page is inscribed with the words ‘Everyone is sick from birth / vanity is ruining the world’. A human skull reminds us of the inevitability of death. Suspended above the chest is a glass globe symbolising the fragility of human life.
But Look Carefully at that Glass Sphere
As the Trust's conservators removed layers of discoloured varnish a distorted 3cm-high image of the artist appeared. Standing at his easel, Roestraten, who looks directly at the viewer, is shown in the surroundings of his studio.
Anna Reynolds, Senior Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection Trust, is co-curator of Portrait of the Artist. Speaking recently, Reynolds said: 'Vanitas paintings traditionally focus on symbolic objects that are designed to make us think about how we live our lives. The discovery of Roestraten's reflection, previously hidden beneath a layer of varnish, is very exciting and adds a new element to the work – a sort of pictorial game that encourages us to look more closely.'
Roestraten's 'A Vanitas' forms part of the exhibition Portrait of the Artist, open at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from 4th November 2016 to 17th April 2017. Tickets and further information are available from the Royal Collection Trust. A fully-illustrated catalogue, by exhibition curators Anna Reynolds, Lucy Peter and Martin Clayton, is also available.