Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill

Pieter Claesz (Dutch, Berchem? 1596/97–1660 Haarlem)
Oil on wood
9 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. (24.1 x 35.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1949
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 635
This is one of the earliest dated still lifes by Claesz, a Haarlem painter who gave extraordinary presence to familiar things. Here a skull, an overturned glass roemer with its fleeting reflections, an expired lamp, and the attributes of a writer suggest that worldly efforts are ultimately in vain.
#5205. Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill
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This superb early work by Claesz, in pristine condition, was long considered to date from 1623 until the question was revisited in 1982 at the request of Martina Brunner-Bulst, whose monograph of 2004 and the Claesz exhibition of 2004–5 now make clear that in style and subject matter the painting is typical of the late 1620s. Technical examination of the date inscribed on the painting confirms that it is intact and can be read only as 1628.

The simplicity and directness achieved in this work were gradually distilled by Claesz over a period of several years, in which he could be said to have reached a moment of early maturity. The Vanitas Still Life with Brass Candlestick, Writing Materials, Letter, Pocket Watch, and Anemone, of 1625 (Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem), continues the additive distribution of motifs found in earlier works, but reduces their number, focusing on two objects, the candlestick and the skull. The Vanitas Still Life with Violin and Glass Ball, of about 1628 (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg), is more complex and repeats the motifs and to some extent the placement of the lamp, pen, pen holder, inkwell, roemer (drinking glass), book, and folders of papers that are found in The Met's composition. Of known works by Claesz, it is not a vanitas picture with a skull but the Still Life with Books and Burning Candle, of 1627 (Mauritshuis, The Hague), that anticipates the Museum's work in its concentration, but the impression is of a small world of reflections and shadows, rather than that of a stark encounter with death in the light of day.

The subject might be interpreted as one of the many variations on the theme of worldly accomplishments—writing, learning, dabbling in the arts—that ultimately come to nothing: all is vanity. The wisp of smoke in the lamp and the reflections in the glass are signs of fleeting existence common in Dutch paintings. Here the skull is not merely an intrusion into a world of human activity, but the familiar attribute of a scholar or philosopher. For the original owner of a work such as this one, the image probably expressed not only the vanity of knowledge but also the knowledge of vanity, much as a contemporary portrait of a person holding a skull conveyed the sitter's belief in a spiritual life after death.

[2011; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Signed and dated (middle right): PC [monogram] / Ao 1628·
Graeff van Polsbroek, Amsterdam (by 1877–84; sale, van Pappeldam and Schouten, Amsterdam, May 16, 1877, no. 28, for fl. 200, bought in; sale, Muller and van Pappeldam, Amsterdam, October 14, 1884, no. 20, for fl. 450); Chevalier Alphonse de Stuers, Madrid and Paris (1884–at least 1912); by descent to H. de Stuers (until 1947; sale, Fischer, Lucerne, October 21–25, 1947, no. 2975); [N. Katz, Dieren, until 1949; exchanged with Kleinberger]; [Kleinberger, New York, 1949; sold to MMA]
Amsterdam. Rijksmuseum. "Het Nederlandse Stilleven, 1550–1720," June 19–September 19, 1999, no. 15 (as "Skull, Lamp, Book, and Pen").

Cleveland Museum of Art. "Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands, 1550–1720," October 31, 1999–January 9, 2000, no. 15.

Haarlem. Frans Hals Museum. "Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life," November 27, 2004–April 4, 2005, no. 18 (as "Vanitas Still Life with Skull, Writing Utensils, Book, Notebook, Roemer, and Oil Lamp").

Kunsthaus Zürich. "Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life," April 22–August 22, 2005, no. 18.

Washington. National Gallery of Art. "Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life," September 18–December 31, 2005, no. 18.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.

Lisbon. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. "In the Presence of Things, Four Centuries of European Still-Life Painting; Part One: 17th and 18th Centuries," February 12–May 2, 2010, no. 60.

A[braham]. Bredius. "Seltene Niederländer des 17. Jahrhunderts." Kunstchronik 20 (December 25, 1884), col. 197, records De Steurs's purchase of the painting at the Amsterdam auction of October 14, 1884, referring to it as one of the nicest early paintings by Pieter Claesz of 1623.

Alfred von Wurzbach. Niederländisches Künstler-Lexikon. Vol. 1, Vienna, 1906, p. 285, lists it as dated 1623 in the sale in Amsterdam, 1884.

E. W. Moes in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Ulrich Thieme. Vol. 7, Leipzig, 1912, p. 38, as in the collection of Alphonse de Stuers, Paris; reads the date inscribed on the painting as 1623.

Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 322, 333, fig. 577 (color), calls it a "tonalist" still life, comparable to landscapes by Van Goyen.

James A. Welu. "Arrangements with Meaning: Dutch and Flemish Still Life." 600 Years of Netherlandish Art: Selected Symposium Lectures. Memphis, 1982, p. 34, as dated 1623, describes the composition and its meaning with particular attention to the overturned glass as a vanitas symbol.

Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, p. 190, fig. 271, as dated 1623; notes the use of realism to convey a vanitas theme.

Walter Liedtke. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and Their Ideals." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1990, p. 55, mentions it among the Dutch paintings acquired by the MMA after World War II.

Sam Segal. Jan Davidsz de Heem en zijn Kring. Exh. cat., Utrecht. The Hague, 1991, pp. 23, 52 n.28, p. 132 under no. 4, fig. 5, as dated 1628; calls it a "monochrome" work that comes from the tradition established by De Gheyn; discerns the influence of this kind of vanitas still life by Claesz in works by W. C. Heda and by Jan de Heem.

Marcel G. Roethlisberger. Abraham Bloemaert and His Sons: Paintings and Prints. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 1993, vol. 1, p. 102, under no. 55, mentions it among the early vanitas still lifes that are "more narrative" than the MMA's painting by De Gheyn.

M[artina]. Brunner-Bulst in Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon: die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker. Ed. Gunter Meissner. Vol. 19, Munich, 1998, p. 354.

Alan Chong Wouter Kloek in Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands, 1550–1720. Exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art. Amsterdam, 1999, pp. 140–42, no. 15, ill. (color), describe the subject and composition; compare it with the MMA's painting by De Gheyn, and claim that the vanitas meaning of the painting is open-ended.

Martina Brunner-Bulst. Pieter Claesz.: der Hauptmeister des Haarlemer Stillebens im 17. Jahrhundert. Lingen, Germany, 2004, pp. 133, 170, 185, 225–26, 352, no. 37, ill. (overall and detail), notes the close relationship between this composition and the right half of W. C. Heda's "Vanitas" of 1628 (Museum Bredius, The Hague); places the painting among other "pure vanitas still lifes" that Claesz painted, and reports on the re-reading of the date as 1628 in 1982.

Martina Brunner-Bulst in Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life. Ed. Pieter Biesboer. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 2004, pp. 46, 120, no. 18, ill. pp. 50, 89, 120 (color, overall and detail), as dated 1628.

Holland Cotter. "Within Images of Excess, A Glint of Moral Theater." New York Times (September 30, 2005), p. E37, ill.

Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 22, 50, fig. 59 (color).

Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. xi, 127–29, 213, no. 28, colorpl. 28.

Jan Piet Filedt Kok in Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Ed. Jonathan Bikker. Vol. 1, Artists Born Between 1570 and 1600. Amsterdam, 2007, p. 188 n. 2.

Old Master & British Paintings. Sotheby's, London. December 9, 2009, p. 44, under no. 13, provides information on Alphonse de Stuers, noting that he owned at least two still lifes by Claesz, this one and "Still Life with a Brazier, a Wine Glass, a Bread Roll, Smoking Paraphernalia, Two Herrings and a Pewter Plate Adorned with Oysters and Tobacco Paper, all Arranged on a Table Top".

Peter Cherry in In the Presence of Things, Four Centuries of European Still-Life Painting; Part One: 17th and 18th Centuries. Exh. cat., Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. Lisbon, 2010, pp. 35–36.

John Loughman in In the Presence of Things, Four Centuries of European Still-Life Painting; Part One: 17th and 18th Centuries. Exh. cat., Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. Lisbon, 2010, pp. 240–42, no. 60, ill. (color).

Christopher D. M. Atkins. The Signature Style of Frans Hals: Painting, Subjectivity, and the Market in Early Modernity. Amsterdam, 2012, p. 79, fig. 55 (color).

Old Master Paintings, Part I. Dorotheum, Vienna. October 17, 2017, p. 106, under no. 47.

Old Masters Evening Sale. Sotheby's, London. December 6, 2017, p. 146, under no. 41.

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