An old man holding a skull is one of the most important recent additions to Jan Lievens' oeuvre. Painted in Leiden in the mid to late 1620s, it is mentioned in an inventory of 1640 and has been in the same family since 1681. It is a remarkable study of the vanitas theme and an important example of the young artist's 'astonishing talent' for depicting the human countenance as described by Constantijn Huygens in 1629.
Lievens worked closely with Rembrandt during the 1620s in Leiden, perhaps even in the same studio, and while aspects of An old man holding a skull recall Rembrandt's head studies of around this time, it reveals Lievens' particular talent for portraiture. Placed against a dark background, the sitter's face is dramatically lit from the left, the contrast between strong light and deep shadow emphasizing the wrinkles on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes, the prominent vein at his temple, and the looseness of the flesh below his chin. Lievens' comparison of the two heads, conveyed through the correspondence of line and colour, is impossible to ignore. The contour of the man's bare head is mirrored in the shape of the skull as is his prominent cheekbone and the deep depression beneath his right eye. The liveliness of his gaze is only emphasized by the empty sockets of the skull and his careful handling of the human remains conveys the sensitivity of the painting's theme as effectively as any aspect of the composition.
More is known about the provenance of An old man holding a skull than most seventeenth-century Dutch paintings and the history of its ownership raises interesting questions about its meaning. An old man holding a skull is almost certainly the painting listed as 'the keeper of the almshouse with a skull in his hand' ('de coster vant Gasthuys meet een Dootshooft inden arm') in the 1640 inventory of Lievens' most important early patron, Jan Jansz. Orlers (Lloyd de Witt, private communication, October 2007). The same sitter appears in a number of early works by both Lievens and Rembrandt, among them Lievens' Triktrak players (private collection, The Hague), Rembrandt's Bust of an old man in a fur cap (Tiroler Landesmuseum, Innsbruck) and Rembrandt's A man in a gorget and a plumed cap (J. Paul Getty, Museum, Los Angeles). Orlers' inventory lists nine paintings by the artist; the present picture and an image of a boy blowing bubbles (location unknown) are both described as having been painted from life ('beyde naert leven') and they may have been conceived as pendants (C. Brown, 'Jan Lievens in Leiden and London', The Burlington Magazine, November 1983, p. 670). Two of the nine paintings listed in Orlers' inventory were still lifes and, while no further description has made the identification of specific works possible, one of the two still lifes attributed to Lievens, Still life with books, an hourglass and a skull (Hannema-de Stuers Foundation), was painted around the same time as An old man holding a skull.
Vanitas imagery most often appeared in the context of still lifes and genre scenes and, despite recent efforts to temper the decoding of iconography in Dutch paintings, it is clear that the overt symbolism of certain objects and events was intentionally blunt. Hourglasses, timepieces, and guttering or spent candles signalled the ephemerality and futility of the material world while death in the form of a skeleton appearing unannounced was a straightforward reminder of death. Lievens' engagement with this theme continued beyond his Leiden years and took the more conventional form of the moralising momento mori in works such as A greedy couple surprised by death, signed and dated 1638 (Melbury Park, Earl of Ilchester). No such narrative provides a context for An old man holding a skull and it falls into the same grey area between portraiture and history painting occupied by the artist's tronies and exotic heads.
Skulls did appear on occasion in the context of seventeenth-century Dutch portraiture. Frans Hals' Portrait of a Man holding a skull painted around 1611 (The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham) depicts a man wearing formal dress in a conventional three-quarter-length format. His portrait is a pendant to that of his wife and, apart from the prominent placement of the skull in the foreground, there is nothing else about the painting that deviates from the traditional iconography of portraiture from this period. Hals' inclusion of a skull in his 1611 portrait of the Catholic clergyman Jacobus Zaffius (known only through a print by Jan van de Velde II), on the other hand, directly relates to the nature of the sitter's profession.
Hals' Young man with a skull (c. 1627, National Gallery, London), however, has been traditionally identified as Hamlet in the grave-digger's scene and it is interesting to note that after being recorded in Orlers' 1640 inventory, An old man holding a skull next appeared in England in the collection of Barton Booth (1681-1733), one of the most famous tragic actors of his day who played among other roles Laertes, the Ghost, and Horatio in Hamlet. While no translations of Shakespeare's works seem to have been published in Dutch in the seventeenth century, his plays were translated into German and were staged in Germany and Denmark as early as the 1620s most likely by travelling troupes of English actors who performed many of the same plays that appeared on the English stage. While there is no evidence that Lievens' painting was intended to represent Hamlet - the sitter is significantly older than that in Hals' painting and his pose is less theatrical - its provenance suggests an association between vanitas imagery in painting and themes in contemporary theatre. Despite their differences both works belong within the larger tradition of the depiction of young men in fancy dress holding skulls that began with an engraving by Lucas van Leyden of 1519. Hendrick Goltzius depicted the same theme in a pen drawing of 1614 (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library) in which a young man holds both a skull and a tulip while an inscription below reads: 'Who escapes? No man.'
After Barton Booth's death in 1733, An old man holding a skull seems to have remained in the possession of his widow, Hester, a celebrated dancer who is credited with introducing the Commedia dell'Arte to England and being the first female choreographer. She is said to have 'danced privately' for both the King of France and England and had an illegitimate daughter by James Craggs, who made his fortune as one of the principal players in the South Sea Bubble scheme. In Hester Booth's bequest, An old man holding a skull is described as 'a head [suppose Plato]'. Hester's daughter married into the Eliot family where the painting has remained ever since.
We would like to thank Dr. Lloyd de Witt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for his help in preparing this entry. He will be including this picture in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist. We would also like to thank Professor Werner Sumowski and Dr. Bernhard Schnackenburg for confirming the attribution to Jan Lievens on the basis of photographs.