Church Monuments Society


David Bailly: time, death and vanity

By CMS in Heritage

Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden is currently hosting an exhibition devoted to David Bailly (c.1584-1657), which also addresses the vanitas theme in his work and that of his contemporaries. Not many people today are familiar with this Dutch painter, who was born in Leiden around 1584 – a generation earlier than his more famous Leiden colleagues Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Gerard Dou (1613-1675). However, among his contemporaries he was well known as a talented portrait painter and an influential graphic artist.

Bailly’s father Pieter Bailly was a Protestant immigrant who had fled Antwerp because of the war. He settled in Leiden where he married a woman from nearby Noordwijk in 1577, and started working as an engraver and calligrapher for the university (founded in 1575) and the town council. This university environment was a stimulating place for the development of the couple’s talented fourth child. The young David Bailly trained locally with a number of artists, including the engraver Jacob (Jacques) de Gheyn II (c.1565-1629), but he also spent time as a painter’s apprentice in Amsterdam before travelling to Hamburg in 1608 and thence to Venice and Rome. With stops at various German courts, he finally returned to Leiden in 1613 where he would live and work for the rest of his life.

The most obvious reason for the exhibition in Leiden is David Bailly’s famous large Vanitas Still Life with Portrait of a Young Painter of 1651 (Fig. 1), which Museum De Lakenhal acquired in 1965. It features many traditional elements that one may expect to see in a vanitas painting, such as the coins and pearls on the table that symbolise transient earthly possessions, the last wisp of smoke from the candle in the centre, the overturned empty glass, the skull as an emblem of mortality, the wilting flowers, and the hour-glass. Floating above this array of objects are three bubbles that refer to Erasmus’s description of man as ‘Homo bulla est’ (man is a bubble): an emblem that we also find in other art of the period (Fig. 2). The text on the piece of paper hanging down the edge of the table on the far right reads ‘VANITAS . VANI[TA]TVM . ET . OMNIA . VANITAS’ (Eccles. 1:2), which is followed by the artist’s name and the year 1651.

Several of these vanitas emblems also occur in a Vanitas of 1603 by Bailly’s one-time teacher Jacob de Gheyn II, which is believed to be the earliest known independent vanitas still-life painting (Fig. 3). Yet Bailly’s Vanitas is a much more enigmatic work. First of all, there is the uncertainty about the identity of the beardless young painter on the far left, who is holding a mahlstick in his right hand while supporting an oval male portrait with his left. That small portrait within the painting is actually a self-portrait of the artist as an older man, but many believe that the young man on the left represents the artist himself in his youth: Bailly drew and painted several self-portraits in his lifetime, which bear close resemblances to both men in the Leiden panel.

If this interpretation is correct, we may also regard this vanitas painting as an allegory of the Three Ages and and of transience. On the wall behind the young artist we see his own early drawing The Lute Player (1626), based on a painting by Haarlem artist Frans Hals (Fig. 4), which together with the flute on the table suggests youthful merrymaking. The clean palette below the print indicates the start of Bailly’s artistic career, while the coins beneath the oval male portrait may allude to his later earnings. The second oval portrait probably represents a young version of his wife Agneta van Swanenburg, whom Bailly had married in 1642. Born in Leiden in 1597 or 1598, Agneta was fifteen years younger than her husband but she appears to have suffered ill health, so the nearby symbols of transience may refer to both: the newly extinguished candle, the empty glass, the watch and the wilting roses, leading on to the hour-glass and the skull, which represents the final Age.

Bailly’s Vanitas probably contains yet further allegory. The five senses may be referenced in the lute-player and the flute on the table (hearing), the empty glass (taste), the pomander and the roses (smell), the young man’s hand on the male portrait (touch), and the display of objects as a whole (sight). The sculpted bust and the statue of St Sebastian on the table may allude to the paragone debate about the superiority of painting over sculpture, while the blank piece of paper falling from the table signals a brief moment in time – movement forever halted in painting.

Another puzzle is the grisaille painting or drawing of a bearded man that is pinned to the wall in the centre of Bailly’s Vanitas. The artist appears to have added this to the composition at a later stage. The identity of this man is unknown, but the same face also occurs in a Still Life of a Market with Fish and Figures of c.1640-50 (whereabouts unknown) by Harmen Steenwijck (c.1612-after 1656), who was actually Bailly’s nephew and apprenticed to him in 1628. Could the bearded man be a crypto-portrait, perhaps of a deceased male relative?

Yet another curious detail is the phantom oval-framed female portrait that shines through behind the flute glass: most probably an overpainted early portrait of Bailly’s wife. Art historians still debate whether its reappearance is due to the increased transparency of later paint layers or whether Bailly really intended this earlier portrait to be visible as a ghostly vision.

In fact, research has revealed further overpaintings in Bailly’s Vanitas, including a hidden third female portrait in an oval frame partly behind the oval male portrait, and a young male portrait in the upper right corner – perhaps another early self-portrait? Bailly is known to have included his self-portrait in other still-life paintings, such as an oval miniature and a phantom reflection of himself in an hour-glass in a Vanitas Still Life with African Servant of c.1650 in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (see

An interesting comparison is the engraved allegorical portrait of Bartholomeus Spranger of 1600, which includes the portrait of his recently deceased wife Christina Muller in an oval frame (Fig. 5). The artist himself is seated on the far left, looking towards the viewer but pointing with his left hand towards the portrait of his wife. With a plethora of symbols referring to faith, fame and the liberal arts, but especially death – such as Father Time, Death with his dart aimed at the artist, a putto with a skull, an hour-glass, smoking urns and a newly extinguished torch: emblems also frequently found on tomb monuments – this is both a vanitas and a commemorative portrait.

Records have shown that Agneta van Swanenburg outlived her husband, dying in 1669 or 1670. Even so, David Bailly appears to have produced a commemorative portrait of them both, just seven years before his own death in 1657 – an one with multiple layers that fully merits further study and a visit to Leiden.

The exhibition ‘David Bailly: time, death and vanity’ runs until 2 July 2023. See The richly illustrated exhibition catalogue of the same title with essays by a host of experts is available in Dutch and English: see

Sophie Oosterwijk


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