LEIDEN, The Netherlands — David Bailly (1584–1657) was a prominent Dutch painter of the generation before Rembrandt and Vermeer. A Calvinist, he traveled through Germany to Venice and Rome when he was young. At home in Leiden he had success painting portraits and still lifes, becoming fashionable, well connected, and self-confident. He married late in life and had no children. The 90 works in David Bailly: Time, Death and Vanity at the Museum De Lakenhal include monumental portraits, along with works by some of the artist’s contemporaries. His early “Kitchen Still Life” (1616) is an impressive depiction of foodstuffs, and the portraits of sitters wearing wonderful Dutch collars are fine. But otherwise Bailly’s skillful portraits of prominent Hollanders are not, to be honest, of any special aesthetic interest. What justified travel to this retrospective, apart from seeing the exquisite Museum De Lakenhal, was the chance to view his last known work, “Vanitas Still Life with Portrait of a Young Painter” (1651). 

“Vanitas” is a showstopper. A young man holds a maulstick in one hand and a small portrait of an older man in the other hand. The portrait rests on a table alongside an assortment of artworks (copies of a Frans Hals drawing and some Flemish sculptures), books, a pipe, jewels and finery, and a portrait of a woman. The general idea, that vanity causes things and people to decay, is familiar. But who are the man and woman in the smaller paintings, and the man at the left holding one of these portraits? And what do their images collectively say about vanity? In general, we can identify Bally’s sitters; he was skilled at capturing likenesses. His “Portrait of Christian Rosenkrantz” (1641) incorporates a small monochromatic painted self-portrait pinned to the canvas at the upper right-hand corner. Like a signature, it identifies the artist who made the larger portrait. But in “Vanitas,” it isn’t obvious how the meaning of these portraits come together.  

David Bailly, “Portrait of Christian Rosenkrantz” (1641); Hillerød, Nationalhistoriske Museum, Frederiksborg Castle

“Vanitas” is on the cover of Svetlana Alpers’s The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983), the best-known recent general account of art in the Netherlands. According to her radical revisionist analysis, “the artist fully, steadily, and with loving care undertakes a version of [philosopher Francis] Baconian experiments ….” Bailly, she says, shows in his illustration of the science of his day how representation gives “us the capacity to comprehend the world.” Moving from the right of “Vanitas” to the left, so she says, the artist transforms nature into art, showing the stages of that activity. “Set off against bodies of plaster, stone, and metal, the bony skull and the images in paint, Bailly and the attendant appear as living flesh.” This speculative account, cited but rejected in the present catalogue, doesn’t explain the visual oddities. The longer I looked at this painting and reread the catalogue, the more puzzled I became. What is the relation of the young man at the left to the older figure, whose small portrait he holds, and the woman in the portrait next to it? It’s clear that the bric-a-brac on the table relates to vanity. But what does that have to do with these portraits? 

To make things even more complex, a recent laboratory study of the painting (and a 19th-century wood engraving of it) reveals behind the glass vessel at the center the faint image of a woman, which seems to have been painted out. The candle to her left is flickering. Because the pigments have perhaps changed, it’s not clear if Bailly’s original work has been preserved. What then was her relationship with the three remaining figures? It seems that the artist, whose other works are visually straightforward, must have intended some specific meaning here. Why then at the end of his career did Bailly create this fascinating, seemingly unresolved puzzle? Nothing in the catalogue, which summarizes recent research on the artist, nor anything that I could see, suggested how to answer this question — a surprising, oddly frustrating conclusion to a seemingly straightforward exhibition. 

David Bailly, “Vanitas Still Life” (1624); Collection National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague
David Bailly, “Young Man with Fur Hat” (c. 1635–40); Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
David Bailly, “Portrait of Clara van Bronchorst” (1631); Collection Brantsen van de Zyp Stichting

David Bailly: Time, Death and Vanity continues at the Museum De Lakenhal (Oude Singel 32, Leiden, the Netherlands) through July 2. The exhibition was curated by Janneke van Asperen and Christiaan Vogelaar.

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...