"An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life" by Harmen Steenwyck is an oil painting which falls within the genre of a "Vanitas" popularised by Dutch painters during the 17th century. The theme of this type of painting is meant to evoke thoughts of the futility of possessions within human life.
The angle of vision is close to and looking down drawing the spectators gaze upon a wooden table housing various objects. A strong shaft of light, perhaps from a highly placed window, is shown as coming from the top left to the central foreground of the composition and falls directly upon the left side of a skull which dominates the work. The viewpoint also ensures notice of an empty shell placed apart and lit on a curved surface echoing that of the skull.
Behind the skull is an inverted wooden lute which has a warm orangey glow created by this light source. Further iconography is present with the depictions of books, a smoking taper, an open pocket watch, a shawm, a sword and what is perhaps a brass candlestick which has toppled over - items symbolising the intended theme of life's frailty. An item (perhaps a book) bearing Steenwyck's name down the spine is an interesting addition and the reason for this inclusion is thought provoking. Nestled amongst these items are pieces of fabric, one of which is a pale but luxuriant pink and one a dark green which add to the shading and tone.
In conclusion, the iconography of the open pocket watch and skull symbolise the shortness of time on earth before the living human form is reduced to bare bones thus reinforcing the theme of futility. Careful brush strokes and a wide tonal range of earthy colours give the whole work outstanding...