Catalogue entry: Demonstrating inventiveness and a sly wit, Jan Miense Molenaer, one of the leading painters of genre scenes in Haarlem during the first half of the 1600s, creates a tableau of a wealthy Dutch home that is more than merely a scene of daily life. Nearly every detail symbolically conveys a moral message: the inevitability of death and the emptiness of worldly pleasures (vanitas). A love of material comforts seems apparent in the painting—the embossed and gilded leather chair, the painted virginal, the imported Turkish rug, the box overflowing with jewels, and the velvet, lace, ermine, and gold-embroidered satin of the young woman's costume. Many of the individual objects carry specific associations with the vanitas theme. In addition to the virginal, Molenaer includes an array of musical instruments on the back wall (from left to right: cittern, violin, shawm, lute, recorder, transverse flute, and violoncello). Music had been associated since the Middle Ages with the enticement of the senses, specifically with love and sexuality. A chained monkey was a popular symbol of humankind voluntarily captive to sin. The child blowing bubbles is an allusion to the proverb "Man is like a bubble" (homo bulla), meaning life is fragile and brief. The focal point of the painting is the young woman, her long blonde hair being combed by her well-dressed attendant. She holds a mirror, traditionally associated with personal vanity and the falseness of appearances, and a ring—another indication of luxury. A hemisphere of the tapestry map seems to sit atop her head—a probable allusion to Lady World, the seductive embodiment of worldliness—and her foot rests on a skull, the most common and obvious symbol of the brevity and vanity of earthly existence.
Rights: Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey