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A Vanitas


RCIN 402604

According to early biographers, the Dutch artist Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraten was introduced to Charles II by Sir Peter Lely on the condition that he paint no portraits. Roestraten appears to have followed Lely's advice, for apart from several self-portraits, he seems to have focused exclusively on still-life paintings of the type seen here, for each of which he was able to charge his aristocratic patrons £50.

Roestraten studied in Haarlem with Frans Hals, his father-in-law, arriving in London by 1666: there are early accounts of him having received a hip injury in the Great Fire of London. Unlike many immigrant artists, who often chose to live south of the river, Roestraten lived in Covent Garden, close to the Palace of Whitehall and to the studios of other artists, including Peter Lely and John Michael Wright.

It has been suggested that this painting may be the 'extraordinary piece' described by an early commentator 'that Sir Peter Lely show'd to King Charles and which his Majesty approv'd. Roestraten's painting sfall within the Dutch pronkstilleven ('ostentatious still-life') tradition, with prominence given to English silver. They bring together a range of fashionable luxury objects, allowing the artist to demonstrate his skill in representing a variety of surface textures. Such images serve as a record of the expensive objects themselves, as well as the fashionable pastimes that they represent – drinking tea, making music, collecting rare objects. Here the arrangement includes several items associated with the vanitas tradition – a skull, a glass orb and a pocket watch – all intended to highlight the transience of time and the inevitability of death, regardless of wealth or status. The book is open at a print of a laughing Democritus inscribed with the lines 'Everyone is sick from birth / vanity is ruining the world'. The most  intriguing feature of the composition is the suspended glass sphere, in which can be seen the distorted reflection of a room, including the tiny figure of an artist looking towards the viewer, and towards the skull and silver ginger jar, which are also included in the reflection. Reflected self-portraits have been identified in at least nine of Roestraten's still lifes.

Roestraten was particularly famed for his ability to depict the reflective surfaces of precious metal objects, like the embossed silver ginger jar seen here. The production of such luxury silver items had seen a resurgence during the Restoration, since they were associated with court gifts, notably from the king to his mistresses, Louise de Kéroualle and Nell Gwyn. Some objects in Roestraten's paintings recur in different paintings and were evidently either studio props or based on reference drawings or prints. The same ginger jar appears in several other paintings by the artist, including Still-life with Silver Pot (Rijksmuseum). The large silver medal in the foreground was produced by Jan Roettier to commemorate the creation of John Maitland (1616–82) as Duke of Lauderdale in 1672 (fig. 36), providing an earliest possible date for the painting.92 The relative rarity of these medals today suggests that a few hundred were probably made for restricted circulation among Lauderdale's friends and allies, rather than for the general public. If the patron for the painting was Sir Peter Lely, then perhaps the medal was his – he had painted John Maitland in the 1660s and again with his new wife, Elizabeth Dysart, c.1672 (Ham House), the year of their marriage. The reverse of the medal, depicted here, represents a seated Minerva leaning on a shield decorated with the arms of the duke, holding a spear and the duke's helmet. Alongside is a gold medal on a chain with a portrait of Charles II all'antica, which also appears in several of Roestraten's paintings, including the Still-life formerly at Chatsworth, signed and dated 1678. 

The close proximity of the two medallions is perhaps an allusion to the close relationship between the two men – the Duke of Lauderdale (cat. 96) had fought for Charles II during the Civil War, and was subsequently appointed Secretary of State for Scotland and King's Commissioner, with responsibility for rebuilding the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The selection also includes a gold or bronze medal of a Dutch lion raising one paw and holding a sword inthe other, alongside numerous other smaller Dutch jetons – tokens used for money counting or gaming, usually made from copper or brass. Thousands of different examples were made in the Low Countries during the Dutch War of Independence. They were often decorated with political messages, and then circulated widely during the seventeenth century. The deliberate inclusion of both Dutch and British coins and medals was perhaps intended to be read as a topical political allegory during the Third Anglo- Dutch war of 1672–4.

In addition to still-lifes, Rosetraten painted a number of self-portraits, of which four are known. It is interesting that these all show the artist holding items that frequently appear in his still lifes, including glassware, a clay pipe and a lemon, presumably alluding to the genre for which he was best known. In one self-portrait (Private Collection, formerly H. Boyd Rockford Collection) he holds an extraordinarily large wineglass, perhaps in reference to Bacchus or the theme of Taste. It is probably also a deliberate nod to Annibale Carracci's Boy Drinking (Cleveland Museum of Art).

Signed on left side of table: 'P: Roestrate'

Text adapted from Portrait of the Artist, London, 2016

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