Frans Francken the Younger

Death and the Miser

Frans II Francken was born in Antwerp in 1581. His father, Frans Francken the Elder, is considered the founding father of the Francken dynasty of artists, which produced about a dozen painters, including a female artist, Isabella Francken. Frans II, or “the Younger”, was arguably the most talented among them, and definitelythe most famous. He undertook several trips to Italy, where he probably first met Rubens. He joined the guild of St Luke in 1605; in 1614, he became the dean of the guild. He was a member of the Antwerp rhetoric chamber De Violieren, for which he painted – in collaboration with Hendrick van Balen, Jan I Brueghel and Sebastiaen Vrancx – a very fine coat of arms, which is still kept in the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts today.

Francken was a versatile and prolific painter, producing not only – often small-scale – mythological, biblical, historical and allegorical paintings, mostly painted on copper or panel, but also large-scale altar pieces. He was also an innovator with regard to subject matter, being among the first in painting genre pieces with monkeys and so-called kunstkamer or gallery paintings, depicting artistic and natural treasures in a collector’s gallery. He is also known to have produced small panel paintings as decorations for cabinets, a piece of furniture for which the Antwerp workshops were well-known. As a result of his artistic talent, innovative iconography and business sense, Francken became hugely successful. Already in 1607 he was able to buy a large house in Antwerp where he lived and established his large workshop.

The present painting depicts an elderly man, who obviously did very well for himself: clad in ermine fur and velvet, he sits in a vaulted room, decorated with fine paintings and furnished with a late sixteenth-century Flemish cabinet. The table is covered with legal documents and gold coins; next to it stands a fortified chest, presumably holding more treasure. Death, leaning on a large hourglass and playing the violin, has come to invite the man for his last dance, after which he must accompany Death to the afterlife. Eager to buy time, the man points to his foot, which rests on a stool: unfortunately enough, his gout does not allow him to dance! Perhaps Death could wait a little longer before coming for him? Even in old age, the man tries to negotiate with Death; he knows his time is running out fast.

However, it is unlikely that Death would be persuaded by such arguments; in the background, he can be seen coming for a young man, for the Latin saying goes: Mors certa, hora incerta (Death is sure, but its hour is unknown). Furthermore, this juxtaposition of Death coming for a younger and older man also lends the painting’s iconography a certain Faustian quality: are they both the same man, striking a deal with Death in youth and then refusing to own up to it in old age? Certainly, the gesturing of the young man in the background, who is obviously unpleasantly surprised by Death’s early arrival, would suggest so. Interestingly, the iconography of the paintings in the background – a burning city and a landscape with wanderers – also refer to the transitory and passing nature of life; the painting as a whole thus serves as a memento mori, which would have been obvious to the well-off, learned and humanist clients Francken targeted with this composition.

Artist: Frans II Francken (Antwerp 1581 - 1642)
Medium: oil on copper
Dimensions: 16,4 x 13 cm