My trail through Art Stories

  • The letter wall was the 17th century’s pin board. This is where you pinned everyday objects such as letters, newspapers, calendars and small objects of symbolic value

    C.N. Gijsbrechts: Trompe L’oeil. Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book, 1668

    The letter wall was the 17th century’s pin board. This is where you pinned everyday objects such as letters, newspapers, calendars and small objects of symbolic value

    Trompe L’oeil. Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book in brief

    • The letter rack was the pin board of the 17th century. This is where you placed everyday objects such as letters, newspapers, calendars and small objects of symbolic value
    • On this letter wall several symbols can be seen, which lead to thoughts of the transitoriness of time and warnings about the shallowness of life’s indulgences
    • On the painting’s left is a large red seal with a portrait of the Danish king, Frederik III. This is the first time Gijsbrechts points to his position as a Court painter

    The pin board of the 17th century

    By: Liza Burmeister Kaaring

    This work shows us what a 17th century pin board looked like. You could even say that the painting is one of the pin boards of that time, because the purpose of the painting was mainly to lead the spectator to believe that he or she was standing in front of one of these boards, also known as letter walls.

    This work is, as a large portion of Gijsbrecht’s oeuvre, painted as a trompe l’oeil, an illusion, made to trick the spectator into believing that the objects are real and three-dimensional rather than flat and two-dimensional.

    Like today, pin boards were used to keep and display documents, scraps of paper, letters/postcards, drawings and various small objects. This way, the board offers a glimpse of who you are or maybe even more, a glimpse of who you wish to be in the eyes of the world.

    Because the letter walls were used to create the contour of an identity, they have often been used as an alternative portrait painting, where the person him/herself is absent and is instead described by an accumulation of objects.

    A portrait of the barber’s wife?

    By: Liza Burmeister Kaaring

    If we choose to conceive this letter wall as an indirect portrait, we do not know who the portrayed person is. There have been guesses, however. Because the work is a counterpart to a similar letter wall (Trompe l'oeil. Letter Rack with a Barber-Surgeon's Instruments) with objects, which were believed to have belonged to a barber, it was guessed that this work (Trompe L’oeil. Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book) was a portrait of the barber’s wife.


    C.N. Gijsbrechts, Trompe l'oeil. Letter Rack with a Barber-Surgeon's Instruments, 1668, oil on canvas, 125 x 109,5 cm, KMS3060, SMK.

    Later, it has been assumed that the objects on the counterpart (Trompe l'oeil. Letter Rack with a Barber-Surgeon's Instruments) were more likely the instruments of a surgeon.  At the same time the idea emerged that the surgical instruments weren’t to be interpreted in a literal sense or as a reference to a person’s vocation, but more as a metaphor for a cleansing process. If this interpretation is in line with the artist’s intentions, it is likely that also Trompe L’oeil. Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book should be interpreted metaphorically.

    The objects in the work and their meaning

    By: Liza Burmeister Kaaring

    Just beneath the works immediate eye-catching deceit there’s another layer, which strikes a Vanitas theme. This layer was probably widely recognisable to the contemporary spectator, but the modern viewer needs a bit of help. Of the different elements’ symbolism can be mentioned:

    Musical instruments and sheets of music: Could be symbols of the shallowness of earthly pleasures. An open sheet of music is held in place by the red ribbon in the left side of the painting.

    Royal- or official proclamations: Symbols of the perishability of secular power. From the left side’s comb case (hanging storage pockets) hangs a large red seal with a portrait of the Danish king Frederik III in profile and the inscription “FREDERICUS III DEI DANNORV GOT REX”. Besides being a widely used symbol of perishability, it is also the first reference to the Danish king in Gijsbrecht’s oeuvre.  This way he drives home his position as Court painter.

    An almanac (calendar with both celestial and temporal information): symbol of the relentless passing of time. In the painting you see two almanacs. One in the lower pocket of the comb case and one in the lower left corner of the painting.

    The comb: In Roemer Visscher’s book of emblems, Sinnepoppen, from 1614, a comb is rendered with the headline: “it cleans and adorns”. This is probably meant in more than one sense, so that the comb, as well as symbolising the purity of the body, also should be seen as a reference to spiritual cleansing and purity. The comb case in this painting contains three combs.

    In connection with the other everyday objects in the painting, among them the many letters, two newspapers and an engraving of a landscape, signed by the artist and dated, the painting is firmly placed in its day. But besides that, the objects refer to a figurative language, derived from emblem-books (reference works interpreting the symbolism of images), and which in this painting contains an invitation to propriety in lifestyle, warnings against the shallowness of earthly pleasures and joys and a reminder of the perishability of our earthly existence.

    According to art historian Olaf Koester, this symbolism was part of a more or less generally applicable iconography, which usually weren’t individualised in relation to the portrayed or the client.

    The symbols are consistently present in Gijsbrechts’ many letter walls and are used together and separately in his entire oeuvre.

    Last updated: 1.Aug.2014