Vanitas and the Mouse

A mouse pauses in mid-step on the edge of a silver tray, among the ornate clutter of a formal feast. But the mouse is not just a hungry mouse—who has fortuitously landed on the tabletop; he is a symbol of the danger of intemperance. After all, this is a Dutch painting from the seventeenth century, a period when it was popular for still life artists to depict groups of objects as cautionary reminders of our mortality. In this work, or in others similar, we may see a candle burning or a candle extinguished, a half-eaten peach, a wilted rose, an overturned glass or an hourglass, and a skull. This genre of paintings is called vanitas, the vanity and the transience of earthly delights.

Banquet Still Life [with Mouse] (detail above) is by Abraham van Beyeren, painted in 1667. Apparently the artist didn’t have much of a following while he was alive during the Dutch Golden Age. But you might say he has transcended death—according to art historian Peter C. Sutton, van Beyeren is now considered “one of the greatest Dutch masters of the painterly still life.”

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(image reproduced for non-commercial use only)


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