Journal of Undergraduate Research


still life paintings, Harmen Steenwyck, orientalist sentiments




Comparative Arts and Letters


The relationship between the Dutch Republic and Japan during the seventeenth century provoked early Orientalist feelings that were manifested in still-life paintings. Harmen Steenwyck’s Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanitas of Human Life from 1640, depicts an intricate, Japanese sword at the center of a still-life table scene surrounded by objects that allude to the theme of vanitas, like the yellowed skull and pocket watch, and other objects that signify the romanticized Orient, like the supple fuchsia-colored silk and sparkling seashell (Fig. 1). Although still-life paintings are usually decoded with an emphasis on the theme of vanitas, I chose to demonstrate how this particular piece conveys a sense of Dutch superiority in military prowess and commercial success. This degradation of Japanese culture is achieved through the work’s focus on the sword as a stolen object, the religious and militaristic connotations attached to the sword, and the general over-idealization of the Orient.