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Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Gerhard Richter, Schädel, abstrakt [Skull, abstract], (1983, CR 545-4). Oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 19 7/8 inches (70 x 50.5 cm)

“I was fascinated by these motifs, and that [fascination] is also nicely distanced. I felt protected because the motifs are so art-historically charged, and I no longer needed to say that I painted them for myself. The motifs were covered by this styled composition, out-of-focus quality, and perfection. So beautifully painted, they take away the fear.”¹
– Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

From left: Gerhard Richter, Schädel, (1983, CR 548-2). Oil on canvas, 37 3/8 x 35 3/8 inches (95 x 90 cm); Gerhard Richter, Schädel mit Kerze (1983, CR 547-2). Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 59 inches (100 cm x 150 cm); Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild, (1982, CR 497-3). Oil on canvas, 49 1/4 x 39 3/8 inches (125 cm x 100 cm)

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Albrecht Dürer, Skull (1521). Brush and black and grey ink, heightened with white, on grey-violet prepared paper, 7 1/4 x 7 5/8 inches (18 x 19.2 cm)

At the beginning of the 1980s, Gerhard Richter (b. Dresden, 1932) produced several small representational paintings addressing the ephemeral nature of life through traditional vanitas motifs. First came the Kerzen [Candles] series, which he began just after his 50th birthday in 1982, followed by his Schädel [Skull] series a year later. In stark contrast to the artist’s commanding abstract squeegee paintings of the same period, these intimate still life works could almost be mistaken for distillations of a larger composition. The Schädel paintings in particular recall the preparatory sketches of a Renaissance master, such as Albrecht Dürer's skull study at The Albertina in Vienna, each one an essentially monochromatic image of a skull in profile resting on a ledge in a spare, almost austere interior.² To produce his skull paintings, Richter projected photographs of a human skull that he had been gifted in the 1960s onto his canvas.³ He would begin by outlining the projections in pencil, then he would paint over the pencil sketches in oil, and finish by smoothing out any texture with a brush. This final painterly intervention results in a slight blurring of the image, almost as if the composition is being viewed behind a layer of frosted glass. The original photographs taken in his Düsseldorf studio are actually much clearer than their corresponding paintings, revealing details of the skull’s original surroundings that are eventually removed or muddied from the decontextualized background of the Schädels.⁴ The environment in the paintings is manipulated and blurred so that it appears isolated or otherworldly in order to mitigate—literally soften—the emotional effect of the image. It is an attempt to soothe the inevitable fears and anxieties encountered in the face of one’s own mortality that ultimately fails, but fortunately Richter’s effort results in something far more interesting: an act of simultaneous protection and exposure, of deflection and reflection, of evasion and confrontation.

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Gerhard Richter, Stilleben (Schädel) [Still Lifes (Skull)], (1983). Atlas sheet 401, 20 3/4 x 26 1/4 inches (51.7 cm x 66.7 cm)

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau (2014, CR 937-1). Oil on canvas, 102 3/8 x 78 3/4 inches (260 x 200 cm)

Of the eight skull paintings, only one is overpainted: Schädel, abstrakt (1983, CR 545-4).⁵ In this iteration, the carefully constructed still life composition is interrupted by several brushstrokes in black, blue, and white, which appear to be randomly applied but are in fact entirely intentional. Overpainting, with its varying degrees of abstraction or deconstruction of form, remains a recurrent motif throughout Richter’s oeuvre.⁶ Often his abstractions conceal representational imagery beneath them, transforming formerly depictive works into investigations of memory, representation, and painting itself.⁷ Richter achieves this within three different types of overpainted works, each with their own connotations and implications. In some paintings the overpainted layer is purely additive and barely conceals the underlying image, while in others the representative imagery becomes partially obscured, and in some the original subject is completely obliterated. The varying degrees of overpainting and abstraction in Richter’s work illustrate the artist’s ongoing concern with the limits of visual representation and the unreliability of collective memory. For example, Richter’s practice of active construction through overpainting in his later Birkenau series (2014) reflects the fragile, transient nature of revisiting the past.⁸ As with his skull paintings, he began his Birkenau works with the projection of photographs onto canvases, again transferring the images onto the surface with graphite. He then went on to add several layers of paint in pink, red, green, and black, causing any visible trace of the image to be completely erased. The overpaint becomes quite literally a barrier, denying the viewer any possible voyeuristic or cathartic satisfaction that might come from seeing the source images. Like a distant memory, the potency of these images has diminished over time and all that remains is the camp’s name, which carries a historical resonance that is ultimately far removed from its past reality.

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department
Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Gerhard Richter, September (2005, CR 891-5). Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 28 3/8 inches (52 x 72 cm)

A similar effect is achieved in Richter’s September (2005, CR 891-5)⁹, an example in which his overpaint partially obscures a representational image—in this case an image of the 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers—without rendering it completely unrecognizable.¹⁰ In this work, the overpainting mimics the smoke of the towers and maintains the same blue-grey color palette as the original image, revealing a distinct visual connection to the subject. Although the Birkenau series and September are both depictions of emotionally charged, violent events in history, Richter painted the Birkenau series almost six decades after the original death camp images were taken, while he completed September only a few years after the 9/11 attack. Indeed, the imagery of 9/11 would have been much more present in the collective consciousness at the time Richter completed September compared to how the subject of his later Birkenau series was viewed by its contemporary audience. The progression from partial to complete concealment between these works corresponds to the deteriorating effect of time on the accuracy and potency of collective memory, acting as a visual representation of transience. As with Richter’s abstracted skull, the additive layers in these works reference both a skepticism of pictorial representation and a recognition of its potential to create meaning. By contrast, the representational image in Richter’s Schädel, abstrakt endures nowhere near the same degree of disfiguration. All of these works incorporate the dual modes of representation and abstraction together, resulting in images that inherently contain their own contradiction. Yet the overpaint in September and the Birkenau series functions as a depiction of deterioration, whereas the overpaint in the abstracted skull serves a much more constructive role: instead of obscuring the representational imagery beneath it, the overpaint in Schädel, abstrakt acts an additional layer of imagery alluding to filmmaking and therefore reframing the context of the underlying composition. Despite the inherently obstructive nature of his overpainting technique, Richter prioritizes image creation over deconstruction in the abstracted skull painting by maintaining the legibility of the primary composition.

At its core, Schädel, abstrakt begins with the out-of-focus yet instantly recognizable depiction of a skull placed on a ledge. Like his earlier photo-paintings from the '60s, the sedated, hazy quality of the image mimics the effect of an old, grainy photograph. According to Richter, his use of photography in the image-making process is a means of freeing himself from supposed creative responsibility, but this clear visual reference to the medium actually suggests an additional layer of artistic engagement.¹¹ Marcus Mette has noted that Richter’s photo-paintings “…revolve around the specific technology of the painting, too: what is a painting – compared with other kinds of pictures? An image of reality, a reproduction of reality – or just reality?”¹² In the decades before Richter was born, the advent of photography challenged previous notions of visual representation. Formerly essential, inherent aspects of painting—specifically its capacity for realistic representation—were rendered nearly obsolete by the technological development. This prompted artists to investigate the boundaries of painting between abstraction and representation, between individual gesture and industrial automation. As an artist constantly grappling with a distrust of pictorial narratives and their ability to accurately reflect reality, it is fitting that Richter would choose to forge a visual connection with the technology that helped call painting’s purpose into question.

“Whether [Richter's photo-paintings] deal with the political sphere, private life, popular culture or history, in all cases they revolve around the specific technology of the painting, too: what is a painting – compared with other kinds of pictures? An image of reality, a reproduction of reality – or just reality?”

– Marcus Mette

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Gerhard Richter, Schädel, abstrakt [Skull, abstract], (1983, CR 545-4). Oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 19 7/8 inches (70 x 50.5 cm)

In both creation and imagery, the overpainted Schädel embodies this world between media more than any other in the series. An additional visual reference to another art form, filmmaking, is imbedded in the overpainted layer of Schädel, abstrakt. The way the vertical black-and-blue brushstrokes intersect with the four black lines running horizontally across the canvas resembles the image of a film strip, while the bold white gesture above the photo-painted skull repeats the upper half of its form so that the overpainted brushstroke and the fully realized skull each seem to occupy two separate, consecutive film stills captured within the overall composition. This repetitive film still image is then reinforced by the subtle white highlight that follows the curve across the top of the original skull. Taken together, the placement and form of these gestural additions appear to reference another means of depicting reality, this time through filmmaking. Here though, Richter does not merely allude to photography or film as a way of depicting reality. Film is a time-based art form because, unlike photography or painting, it includes a temporal dimension in which the work unfolds beyond just one moment. The visual connections to this particular art form can therefore also be interpreted as a reference to the passage of time, an allusion that again returns to the central theme of the vanitas image as a means of confronting life’s ephemeral nature.

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Adriaen van Utrecht, Vanitas Still Life with Flowers and Skull (1642). Oil on canvas, 26 3/8 x 33 7/8 inches (67 x 86 cm)

Richter considers interpretive visualizations of history inherently problematic, yet he is constantly producing images that connect to others that precede and follow it.¹³ He often chooses the temporal distance of an obsolete or antiquated reference as a point of departure, simultaneously creating detachment and connection within his work. In his Schädel series, Richter attempts to build yet another barrier between himself and the intimate subject matter by adopting a familiar art historical motif. The image of a skull in profile has been painted by other artists countless times throughout the history of western art, and the specific arrangement of a skull resting on a ledge is rooted in the Dutch vanitas still life tradition. Dutch still life painting was popularized in the 17th century, during a time of increased urbanization and trade that resulted in the rise of a wealthy merchant class with a growing interest in collecting and personal possessions. Many early vanitas arrangements, like Adriaen van Utrecht’s Still Life with Bouquet and Skull (1642) for example, included a skull in profile surrounded by other symbols of the theme, such as fresh fruit in varying states of decomposition or luxurious Venetian glass goblets. Importantly, the vanitas tradition was never bound to religious ideologies; vanitas imagery was intended to be viewed through the lens of morality, not religion. From the beginning, the motif was meant to convey an optimistic, encouraging message to enjoy life’s pleasures while it is still possible.¹⁴ The remembrance of death was accompanied by a love of life, an appreciation for beauty and luxury coupled with an understanding that they would not be forever. For vanitas still life masters like Pieter Claesz or Edwaert Collier, these images were more than just allusions to the fleeting nature of earthly possessions, they also represented an opportunity for the painters to demonstrate their skill in realistically depicting various textures and their virtuosity as an artist.

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Edwaert Collier, Vanitas - Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull (1663). Oil on panel, 22 1/4 x 27 1/2 inches (56.5 x 70 cm)

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Gerrit Dou, The Artist in His Studio (ca. 1632). Oil on panel, 23 7/8 x 17 3/8 inches (60.5 x 44 cm)

In some cases, these traditional vanitas skull arrangements were incorporated into larger portrait compositions to indicate aspects of the sitter’s personality. This is the case for Gerrit Dou’s Artist in His Studio (ca. 1632) now in Lakenhal,¹⁵ based on an earlier composition by Rembrandt of the same subject.¹⁶ In Rembrandt’s image, dated 1628, the subject is situated within a spare interior dominated by an impressively sized easel, offering a straightforward representation of “the artist” by emphasizing the tools of his trade. Meanwhile Dou offers a slightly more nuanced interpretation. His carefully rendered sitter gazes directly at the viewer, surrounded by objects traditionally associated with the vanitas motif, including a globe, a lute, and a skull resting prominently on the table before him. Dou likely included these symbols of transience to contrast the lasting achievements of “the artist," creating a visual representation of “ars longa vita brevis [art is long, life is short]."¹⁷ While the artist’s mortality is inevitable, the work he creates will certainly outlast him and may indeed be a means through which he can live on. More specifically, the skull may be a reference to the artist’s oeuvre itself, in that it is what will remain after the artist is gone. The very depiction of a skull asks the viewer to confront the idea of permanency in art, to contemplate the fact that artists are inherently ephemeral but art need not be. Perhaps this is also a motive for Richter, whose skull series can be interpreted as depictions of what will remain when he is gone, both in terms of his physical form and his artistic output.

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Attributed to Hercules Segers, Skull on a Ledge (ca. 1620–1630). Oil on canvas, 11 1/2 x 10 3/8 inches (29.1 x 26.3 cm)

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior. Artificial Light (1909). Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 32 5/8 inches (60 x 82.8 cm)

Another particularly spare, contemporary-looking example of a vanitas skull from the 17th century is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Attributed to Hercules Segers, the painting dates to around 1620–1630 and features a skull resting on a table before a plain black background.¹⁸ The skull's position mirrors Schädel, abstrakt, but the painting is actually closer in appearance to the photographs from which Richter’s skull compositions derive. Segers has carefully rendered every single crevice and groove in the skull, providing details that do not come across in Richter’s painted rendition of the subject. The potency of this simplified composition highlights the artist’s skill in accurately depicting the intricacies and texture of the object, whereas Richter endeavors to create a diffused barrier between the viewer and the highly charged subject by softening these details. Instead of curbing the intensity of the subject though, Richter’s paring down of the composition and blurring of its details imbues the skull with a near-mystical quality that elevates its status beyond the ordinary.

The resulting luminescent, dream-like atmosphere in the Schädel and Kerzen paintings evokes a sense of private meditation, one that is interested in exploring the mysterious nature of death through a lens of memory and self-reflection. Familiar, universal images become enigmatic, as if they “…should perhaps be regarded as a series of existential statements.”¹⁹ In this way, Richter's approach is rooted in late 19th-century Romanticism.²⁰ The art historical, essentially antiquated motifs placed within a stark, ambiguous setting call to mind the intimate, contemplative interiors of the often overlooked 19th-century painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. Curiously, the Danish painter was all but forgotten in the decades following his death, until two retrospectives were launched, first in Copenhagen (1981) and then in the United States (1983), sparking a renewed interest in his strikingly modern images of silent interiors.²¹ It is entirely possible that Richter was—or became—aware of Hammershøi at the time he was painting his skull and candle works, as the ethereal light and color palette of his skull paintings clearly echo Hammershøi’s atmospheric work. One composition by the Danish artist, Interior. Artificial Light (1909),²² even features two lit candles placed in the middle of a round table in an otherwise dark alcove, almost like a zoomed-out version of one of Richter’s Kerzen paintings. As in Richter’s skull and candle series, a sense of otherworldly intensity seems to emanate from the everyday domestic objects depicted in his paintings.


Andy Warhol, Skulls (1976). Acrylic paint and silkscreen on canvas in six parts, each 15 x 19 1/4 inches (38.1 x 48.6 cm)

Many of Andy Warhol's works also focus on familiar objects that appear otherworldly or detached. Richter’s overpainted Schädel, with its bold, almost geometric brushstrokes against a relatively simple composition, calls to mind Warhol’s slightly earlier series of skull paintings from 1976.²³ In each example from his series, several layers of vibrant colors are contrasted with the stark black shadows of a human skull. Like Richter, he sourced the image for this series from a photograph. Taken by his assistant Ronnie Cutrone, the image shows a human skull seen from a slightly raised point of view resting on a flat surface.²⁴ While the hazy effect of Richter’s skull paintings certainly resembles the imagery of an old photograph, the connection to the photographic source here is even more direct: the black-and-white photograph’s dramatic shadows are faithfully reproduced through the screen printing process. Many of Warhol’s skull works are repetitive, some comprising six or ten panels of the same image in different color combinations, exploring not just the idea of mass production but also the oversaturation of skull imagery. The artist clearly shared Richter’s view that there is a comforting distance created by the appropriation of such ubiquitous, art historical motifs, once stating “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.”²⁵ And yet, the unflinching confrontation with mortality—in both artist’s series—cannot be ignored.


From left: Sigmar Polke, Totenkopf (Quecksilberkosmetik) (1975). Dispersion and spray enamel on photosensitized canvas, 15 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches (40 x 50.2 cm); Luc Tuymans, Apple (1993). Oil on printed paper on painted wood, 10 x 10 1/2 inches (25.4 x 26.7 cm)

A year before Warhol began his skull series, in 1975, Sigmar Polke adopted the skull motif through layered and historically familiar imagery that, like Richter’s abstracted skull painting, presented both a barrier and opportunity for meaning. The subject of Polke’s Totenkopf (Quecksilberkosmetik) is a classic optical illusion originally drawn by Charles Allan Gilbert in which two separate images shift in and out of focus.²⁶ At a distance, Polke's shimmering screen print appears merely to be the outline of a skull against a black background, but upon closer observation the skull image morphs into a completely different composition depicting a woman sitting in front of her vanity looking at her own reflection. This visual double-entendre forces the viewer’s perception to jump back and forth between two images, a phenomenon similar to observing Richter’s multi-layered Schädel as the eye shifts between the figurative photo-painting and the abstract brushstrokes that interrupt it. The two works differ though in that Polke's Totenkopf contains two distinct images within the same visual plane, whereas Richter’s Schädel, abstrakt contains two visual layers within a single image: the overpainted layer builds upon the underlying composition, remaining separated yet inextricably linked to its imagery. For both works, each layer functions metaphorically and literally. In Polke’s Totenkopf, the allusions to traditional vanitas motifs extend beyond just the two compositions. Polke forges a clear connection to the ephemeral nature of superficial, worldly possessions with the subtitle “Quecksilberkosmetik [Quicksilver Cosmetic],” subtly implying that the woman’s vanity could be deadly given that quicksilver, or mercury, is highly poisonous.²⁷ Even the medium is self-referential, as the silvery lurex fabric woven with metallic tinsel mimics the reflective quality of the woman’s mirror. In Schädel, abstrakt, the reminder of corporeal transience also extends beyond the subject, with the allusions to photography and film reflecting an awareness of the passage of time.

Luc Tuymans’ Apple from 1993 also masquerades as an image of a skull from afar, straddling the line between allusion and illusion.²⁸ Again, the imagery in Tuymans’ unconventional still life also originates with photography and connects to the same vanitas themes of memory, mortality, and the passage of time. The monochromatic work on paper depicts a partially eaten apple resting precariously on the ground before a simple grey background, its bitten side in full view. At first the bitten area might be mistaken for the underside of a jaw bone, causing the image to look like a skull facing away from the viewer.²⁹ Its subject derives from a crime scene photograph of a murder in which the killer had dropped the fruit as he was leaving and his identity was discovered based on the bite marks from the apple.³⁰ Because of the grisaille color palate, the details of the apple appear just ambiguous enough to allow them to be mistaken for the grooves of a skull. In the duality of its imagery, the subject alludes to two vanitas motifs—a skull and a piece of partially eaten fruit. While Tuymans' subject also functions as physical proof of mortality, assuming the implications of a memory of what has happened, Richter’s skull painting might be interpreted as a portrait of the artist’s deathly remains—a visual representation of what is to come.

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Gerhard Richter, Schädel (1983, CR 548-1), shown hanging inside the artist's Cologne home in Thomas Struth, The Richter Family 1, Cologne (2002). Silver dye bleach print, face-mounted to acrylic, 40 1/4 x 63 1/2 inches (102.2 x 161.3 cm)

Richter’s Schädel paintings may appear at first to be blind historical citations, but their referential function allows the artist to connect and disconnect with certain aspects of the vanitas motif. Because the image is so familiar, it is almost as if it takes on a special meaning within a language of tradition, one that reflects a collective visual memory outside of strict realism. The skull image has also, to some extent, lost its potency over time as it went from an art historical motif to a universally recognizable symbol, becoming ubiquitous within mainstream culture. Richter’s confrontation with mortality therefore becomes both obvious and diluted. Schädel, abstrakt is unique within the skull series in its dual nature of abstraction and representation, in its additional layer of meaning. There is a protective quality to the historical veneer with which Richter painted this series and perhaps the overpaint serves as yet another layer of protection. And yet, it may be the illusion of barriers, of detachment, that permits Richter to approach the passage of time with such unflinching sobriety.

Written by Isabelle Dove

Gerhard Richter: Schädel, abstrakt - From the Research Department - Viewing Room - From the Research Department

Back to the Schädel series

1 Gerhard Richter quoted in Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago, 2009), p. 232.

2 Graphische Summlung, The Albertina, Vienna, Austria (inv. no. 3175).

3 Dietmar Elger in Gerhard Richter: Schädel (Skull), 1983 (London: Christie’s, 2018), p. 18.

4 These images are now part of Richter’s Atlas: Helmut Friedel, Gerhard Richter. Atlas (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2011), Atlas sheet 401.

5 Curiously, he produced several different overpainted Kerze paintings. In 1989, he produced two editions of candle images with squeegee overpaint, Kerze III (Editions CR 67). Later that same year, he painted over his 1982 painting Zwei Kerzen (CR 499-3) to produce what is now Abstraktes Bild (CR 837-4).

6 Stephan Berg, “In the House of Mirrors” in Christoph Schreier, ed., Gerhard Richter: About Painting / early works (Bonn: Kunstmuseum Bonn and Ghent: Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, 2017), p. 88.

7 For more on abstraction and memory in the context of Richter’s work, see Sheena Wagstaff, “Introduction: The Excavation of Memory” in Sheena Wagstaff and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Gerhard Richter: Painting After All (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020), pp. 14–21.

8 For more on the Birkenau series, see Christoph Schreier, “Questioning the Sphinx” in op. cit. Schreier (2017), pp. 17–23.

9 The Museum of Modern Art, New York (inv. no. 1901.2008).

10 Interestingly, this type of partially obscuring overpaint may be compared to Tisch [Table] (CR 1) from 1962, which Richter considers to be his first “mature” painting. Based on a photograph of a white modern table, the representational image in this early work is partially dissolved with the artist wiping a layer of solvent across its surface. The gestural abstractions left behind serve as a depiction of erasure in that they imply eradication without actually concealing the representational layer beneath it. While Richter’s Tisch involves an act of destruction though, his overpainted works achieve a similar effect through an act of construction. For more on Tisch and its position within Richter's oeuvre see op. cit. Elger (2009), pp. 46–48 and op. cit. Schreier (2017), p. 20.

11 Martin Germann, “Source Codes and Echoes” in op. cit. Schreier (2017), pp. 101–102.

12 Marcus Mette, “The figure and the world” in Poul Erik Tøjner, ed., Gerhard Richter – Image after Image (Humlebaek, Denmark: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2005), p. 16.

13 For more on Richter’s approach to historical imagery, see Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Gerhard Richter: Painting after the Subject of History (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 2022). In particular, see ch. 12, “A Note on October 18, 1977,” pp. 359–381.

14 Walter Liedtke, “Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600–1800,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed 10 November 2022,

15 Museum De Lakenhal, The Netherlands (inv. no. S 5824).

16 Rembrandt van Rijn, Artist in His Studio (ca. 1627–1628). Oil on panel, 9 3/4 x 12 1/2 inches (24.8 x 31.7 cm), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Massachusetts, Zoe Oliver Sherman Collection (inv. no. 38.1838).

17 Ronni Baer, Gerrit Dou 1613-1675: Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2000), cat. no. 1, p. 64.

18 S. H. Spencer Compton, Trustee of the Edith I. Welch 2011 Irrevocable Family Trust, on loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

19 Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, Vilhelm Hammershøi 1864-1916: Danish Painter of Solitude and Light (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1998), p. 6.

20 Poul Vad, “Vilhelm Hammershøi: An Introduction” in ibid., pp. 11–12.

21 Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Vilhelm Hammershøi (16 October – 29 November 1981); and Wildenstein Institute, New York. Vilhelm Hammershøi: painter of stillness and light (7–28 January 1983); Exhibition travelled: Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (12 February – 27 March 1983).

22 Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (inv. no. KNS8977).

23 For more on Warhol’s skull series, see Donna De Salvo, Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018), pp. 28, 73.

24 Oliver Lurz, “Skulls,” Collection, Tate Modern, accessed 10 November 2022,

25 Andy Warhol quoted in Colin MacCabe, ed., Who is Andy Warhol? (Pittsburgh: The British Film Institute and The Andy Warhol Museum, 1997), p. 119.

26 Polke’s appropriation of this type of puzzle imagery may have been in a reference to Cup 2 Picasso, one of Jasper Johns’s first depictions of a Rubin’s vase—a classic double-image that can be read as either a vase or a pair of silhouetted faces shown in profile. Produced by Johns in 1973, just one year before Polke’s Totenkopf, the print shows a cream-colored vase formed from the negative space between the contours of Picasso’s mirrored profile. For more on Cup 2 Picasso, see Susan Hodara, “A Marriage of Visual Masters,” The New York Times (27 April 2014), p. WE11.

27 Holly Black, “The Painters Conjuring the Long, Dark Night,” Elephant, accessed 20 December 2022,

28 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Jan Christiaan Braun in honor of Ronald S. Lauder (inv. no. 441.2004).

29 Many 17th century still life painters chose to depict skulls from a similar angle in order to show their skill in accurately reproducing the details from such a visually complex perspective. For example: Salvator Rosa, Vanitas Still Life (ca. 1650), Alte Pinakothek Munich, Germany (inv. no. 13103) and Edwaert Collier, Vanitas Still Life (1675), Mauritshuis, The Hague (inv. no. 810).

30 Nancy Spector, “The Unforgiving Trace” in Ulrich Loock et al, Luc Tuymans (London: Phaidon, 1996), pp. 100–101.