Young Man holding a Skull (1626-1628)

Hals, Frans (c.1582-1666)

Young Man holding a Skull (Vanitas)
Oil on canvas, 92.2 × 80.8 cm
National GalleryLondon

A life-size figure stands before us, holding a skull in one hand and gesticulating with the other. Shown close up, the young man is facing us frontally but looks to his left, his eyes fixed on something that lies outside of the painting. It is the gesture of his right hand that focuses us. Dramatically foreshortened, his fingers seem to project out of the canvas into our space. With his open mouth and hand, it appears as if he is either about to talk or pausing in the middle of a declamation.

This is one of Hals’s most captivating paintings, as well as an outstanding example of his bold technique of painting freely and quickly, which sets him apart from most artists of the time. There is no trace of the underpainting that was usually employed at the time. The drapery was laid down in one layer over a reddish ground, which shows through in places to provide mid-tones between highlight and shadow. In some areas, such as the red feather, the paint was applied wet-in-wet, blending some of the colours. The contour of the nose was even scratched through wet paint, perhaps with the handle of the brush. And some areas, such as the skull, are modelled with very course hatching.

This painting is not a portrait. The skull is a symbol of mortality, a reminder of the transience of human life. Such a subject is known as a ‘vanitas’ (Latin for vanity), a name derived from a verse in the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes 12: 8): ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.’ The symbolic character of the painting is underlined by the young man’s costume, which is not contemporary. The beret with a large ostrich feather and the drapery are a fanciful recreation of sixteenth-century fashion, used by painters and actors alike mainly to represent allegorical and historical figures. In fact, the subject has in the past been incorrectly identified as the graveyard scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act V, Scene I), in which Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, his father’s beloved court jester. Holding the skull, Hamlet speaks as if Yorick is alive before him, and contemplates the temporary nature of life. But there is no evidence that Shakespeare’s famous play was ever performed in the Dutch Republic or translated into Dutch during Hals’s time. Rather, both the painting and Shakespeare’s famous scene are rooted in the same tradition.

The Netherlandish tradition of showing young boys holding skulls can be traced back to engravings of the early sixteenth century. A similar composition to Hals’s painting can be found in a pen drawing by Hendrick Goltzius of 1614. It shows a fancifully dressed youth with a skull, wearing a beret with a multitude of feathers. The Latin inscription in the background leaves no doubt about the symbolic character of the picture. Translated, it reads: ‘Who escapes? No man.’ (NG)

See also:

• Shakespeare, William (1564-1616): Hamlet (1599-1601)