A scholar in his studio by Abraham Van Den Hecken

This portrait depicts a wealthy, well-dressed man in his studio, surrounded by valuable and rare objects from distant lands. The carpet is particularly important in this painting. Carpets were highly-valued items in European households, appearing in Dutch still-life paintings as symbols of wealth. Also visible in the painting are books, a journal, a world globe, bird of paradise feathers (from the Spice Islands) in the gentleman’s cap, and an Indonesian Keris (a distinctive sword or dagger) hanging on the wall, indicating he is both educated and well-travelled. The partly-concealed skull is a vanitas symbol, serving as a warning of the dangers of too much emphasis on worldly riches.

The merging of six Dutch trading companies to form the United East India Trading Company in Amsterdam in 1602 marked the beginning of a period of great wealth and power for the Netherlands. The company was formed to dominate the spice trade and to eliminate competition, making it the world’s first multi-national corporation, with settlements and trade centres all over the Far East. During this period, the Netherlands became a modern, exciting and wealthy place. The riches acquired because of the spice trade, and new contacts with Asia, encouraged people’s interest in works of art from new lands.


Artists use symbols in their works of art to communicate a story or a message.

In a work of art a symbol is a recognisable object or element that represents something else (an idea or concept) that may be too complex to depict in an image. For example, sometimes flowers can be a symbol of spring or hope. Certain colours can also represent different things: blue, for example, can signify peace but it can also represent sadness. Unique personal symbols can also be created by an artist, and these may have specific meanings, which only the artist will know.

There are no clear rules for the way artists use symbols, so that’s why it’s important for us (the audience) to look at and consider all the visual information available to us before we make conclusions about a work of art.


A vanitas symbol is a reminder of the certainty of death. Investigate other vanitas symbols which artists use in works of art. Explore the Gallery's collection and locate three other works of art where a vanitas symbol has been used.

What can you tell about this man from the various objects included in the painting?

Write a story about this man and his life. Use the objects in the painting to help tell the story.

Create a painting of yourself in your room, surrounded by objects that say something about you, your personality, and what you like to do.

Think of a story that is important to you, your family, school or community. Collect recycled surfaces such as cereal boxes, old canvases, frames or fabric. Create a painting that represents this story, using your own symbols and a colour palette of your choice.