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All That Glistens

Frans Francken the Younger
Antwerp 1581 – 1642
Death and the Merchant
oil on copper
6 ½ x 5 ⅛ inches
16.5 x 13 cm

Frans Francken the Younger was perhaps the best known member of a large family of artists from Antwerp, with a diverse and imaginative output. Among a number of genres Francken invented or developed were his distinctive views of gallery interiors. Densely packed with paintings, sculptures, musical and scientific instruments, shells and other collectibles, these rooms depict both imaginary and existing art collections, often with identifiable artworks (fig. 1). Some compositions contain elegantly dressed figures who converse, study or entertain, occasionally taking an allegorical cue from the subject of the paintings-within-the-painting. A drawing attributed to Francken depicting A Picture Gallery in the Royal Collection (RCIN 912983) shows much resemblance to the Linder Gallery painting in our exhibition, suggesting that the drawing could have served as a model for the painting, perhaps by the same artist. Francken also specialized in small-scale paintings with religious, mythological and satirical subjects. His “monkey” scenes remained popular into the next generation.

Fig. 1 Frans Francken II, Art and Rarity Chamber, ca. 1620 /25 Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Gemäldegalerie, 1048

The present work is a Vanitas – an allegory on the futility of wealth which cannot keep death at bay. Dr. Ursula Härting has identified at least eight versions of this image by Francken. While some are known to exist on panel, a few notable examples are painted on copper. A slightly larger version in the Wellcome Collection (inv. 45044i; fig. 2) can be compared to the present work in terms of quality and execution. In our picture, there is noticably more articulated details in the foreground, as well as impastoed highlights across the surfaces of furniture, vessels, and paintings. Over time, Francken’s precise brushwork evolved to thin glazes and freer strokes. sketchier version of similar dimensions to our picture is in the National Trust, Nostell Priory (inv. 959419). Härting noted that the artist may have based the composition on an engraving from the famous Dance with Death series by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) in which the rich man hoards his wealth in a barred vault and is haunted by the skeleton man. The old man, whose money bags are seen leaning against the money chest lower left, may be an attorney or a money lender to judge from the sealed letters and gold coins. Even without the glasses he holds in his right hand, he is well able to recognize and fear the figure of death accosting him. The fiddle or violin was known as the devil’s instrument since it was used for dancing and merriment that led to unrestrained behavior and drunkenness, frowned on by the clergy and moralists. Indeed as late as the 19th century, the german artist Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) painted a self-portrait showing himself with a fiddling skeleton at his shoulder (Alte Nationalgalerie, Stätliche Museum, Berlin, inv. no. A I 633).

Fig. 2 Frans Francken II, Death and the Miser, oil on copper, 23 x 17 cm. Wellcome Collection, inv. 45044i

The old man rests his foot on a stool, perhaps as a relief from gout, the disease of the wealthy and self indulgent which affected the toes, and he points to it in awareness that death and disease will inevitably catch up with him. The skeleton, in mocking imitation, rests its own foot on an hourglass, a common symbol of the transience and the sands of life running out. He spots an embroidered purse at his waist containing an object hard to decipher but maybe a shovel for scooping up the money that will be of little avail to the man once he is dead. In the background another skeleton confronts a much younger man, perhaps the older man’s son, who through his fathers wealth and judging by his sword has elevated himself to the gentry class. He may be in a position to dissipate his fathers riches, but death always lies in wait. ❖

Private collection, New York

Installation view of the present painting in All That Glistens
More from the exhibition