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Portrait of a Young Man with a Skull
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Young Man Holding a Skull (Vanitas) by Frans Hals was often thought to be a painting of that scene in Shakespeare’s play "Hamlet" when Hamlet is holding the skull of Yorick, the court jester, but that is super incorrect.

If you see a young man holding a skull and paid attention in high school English class, more often than not, your first thought is going to be “To be, or not to be. That is the question.” (Or, to be more accurate, it might be "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio," because that's the monologue Hamlet actually launches into when he's holding the skull.) At any rate, you’ll automatically be transported back in time to when you had braces and crippling self doubt, when prom was the highlight of the social season, and when your reading list was made up of Shakespeare, Shakespeare, and more Shakespeare. If this sounds like hell, then the good news is that this painting is not actually about Hamlet’s decision whether or not to commit suicide. The bad news is that this piece is about the certainty of your own death. Don’t believe me? Then why is the young boy holding a skull and pointing at you?

This kind of painting was super popular in the Netherlands in the 17th century. It was so popular in fact that pieces like this one can actually be traced back to the early 16th century, long before Hamlet ever paced the floorboards with a moody tread. It’s called a "vanitas," and it’s here to remind us that we are tiny specks of dust on a slightly larger speck of dust hurtling through space and nothing we do or say will keep us from dissolving in the ground one day. You might think that this kid is wearing awfully pompous clothing for this kind of a message. It seems like a giant pink feather attached to red beret would make anything that comes out of your mouth sound like a joke, but this was all the rage back then. This was the clothing used for allegorical and genre paintings by the Dutch followers of the legendary Caravaggio, one of the early leaders of the Baroque period. It may be silly, but who are we to question the fashion choices of Caravaggio?

 

Sources

Sources

  1. "Frans Hals | Young Man Holding A Skull (Vanitas) | NG6458 | National Gallery, London." Nationalgallery.org.uk. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/frans-hals-young-man-holdin...
  2. Sonnema, Roy Brian. "THE EARLY DUTCH VANITAS STILL-LIFE." Order No. 1315455, California State University, Fullerton, 1980. https://login.libproxy.newschool.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-c....
  3. "Speech: “To Be, Or Not To Be, That Is The Question” By William Shakespeare." Poetry Foundation. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56965/speech-to-be-or-not-to-be-t...

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Young Man with a Skull

Young Man with a Skull is a c.1626 painting by the Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals, now in the National Gallery, London. The painting was previously thought to be a depiction of Shakespeare's Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick, but is now considered to be a vanitas, a reminder of the precarious nature of life and the inevitability of death.

Painting

The painting shows a young man wearing a feathered red bonnet and swathed with a cloak across his chest, gesturing dramatically towards the viewer with his right hand while holding a skull in his left hand. It was first documented by Hofstede de Groot in 1910, who described it as a life-size half-length portrait of Hamlet. De Groot also wrote that it was exhibited on loan in the Dublin National Gallery in 1895. He noticed this painting's similarity to another painting by Hals, and he remarked that in this work the subject's right hand "formerly rested on a skull which has been painted out".

The interpretation as a theatrical portrayal of Hamlet was called into question by W.R. Valentiner in 1923. In his 1989 catalog of the international Frans Hals exhibition, Slive claims it is a vanitas and compares it to several other examples of men portrayed with skulls. He rejects the identification as Hamlet, because Shakespeare's plays have not been recorded in the Northern Netherlands in the 1620s.

It was bought by the National Gallery, London in 1980. They write that: "The Netherlandish tradition of showing young boys holding skulls is well-established and can be traced back to engravings of the early 16th century."

The National Gallery also notes the exotic costume of the subject, similar to that shown by the Caravaggisti (followers of Caravaggio) based in Utrecht. Hals' depiction of the subject's costume, holding a skull with a draped cloak over the chest, is similar to at least four other known paintings:

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Young Man with a Skull.