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Allegory on Human Life
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Allegory on Human Life

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Description In Flemish 17th-century painting, elaborate garlands of sensuous, fragile blossoms at the height of their beauty and fruit ripe to the point of bursting—all inviting our touch before their inevitable decay—were often depicted framing spiritually significant images. Jan Brueghel developed this type for compositions focused on the Virgin, but it was taken up by others including Daniel Seghers (1590-1661) and Hieronymus Galle I (1625-1679). Here they frame and complement a still life of objects underlining the brevity of human life: a skull, a burning candle, and an hourglass. The combination encourages a meditation on the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection from his mortal death and the resurrection promised through Christ to the faithful. Along with fruits and flowers including roses, grapes, cherries, and thistles, as well as butterflies and a beetle, Van Son has included an ear of corn, a New World addition to the European diet. Obviously the skull was too much for one past owner, as it was painted out at some point in the past, only to be revealed through technical examination (and cleaning in 1988 (Seidler). Van Son was baptized in Antwerp on September 24, 1623. On the basis of a comparison of style, Van Son is supposed to have studied with the still life painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem who had come to Antwerp from Utrecht in 1636. Van Son then became a master in the Antwerp painters' guild of St. Luke in 1643. Like de Heem, he specialized in fruit pieces, either laid out in seductive display on a table or in wreaths or garlands surrounding a niche such as here. This cartouche format (as here) was favored by the artist in the 1650s. The layout in the Walters' piece of a garland incorporating flowers above and fruit in the lower half can be compared to a much smaller painting (56 x 40 cm) attributed to the artist in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. In that painting the niche contains a roemer (style of drinking goblet) of wine thus referencing the Christian Eucharist. His brilliant observation brought him fame and he had several followers including his som Jan. Inscribed lower right on the ledge: I. van Son fecit.Further analysis within the "Chamber of Wonders" installation and bibliography
  • Going for Baroque. The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. 1995-1996.
  • Highlights from the Collection. The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. 1998-2001.
  • A Magnificent Age: Masterpieces from the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte. 2002-2004.
Provenance Mr. and Mrs. William Muhlen, 1930s; to their daughter, Mrs. Marcelle J. von Mayer-Denues, Columbia, Maryland; Walters Art Museum, 1985, by bequest.
Credit Bequest of Mrs. Marcelle J. von Mayer-Denues, 1985

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ca. 1658-1660
oil on canvas
(Painting & Drawing)
Accession Number
H: 49 1/8 x W: 36 1/2 in. (124.7 x 92.7 cm)

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