De Heem is known mainly for the colourful, flamboyant flower still-lifes he painted from 1650. But before that, he painted simple still-lifes in shades of brown and grey.
Educated viewers would have recognised the titles of the books on the table and understood that their central theme was the concept of fate. This added a deeper level to De Heem’s still-life. It warns against the mortality of mankind: dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return – however widely read you may be.