Vanitas is a form of Dutch art characterized by realism, symbols of mortality, and life’s futility. The term ‘vanitas’ is a Latin word that refers to vanity or the impermanence of worldly pursuits. Vanitas paintings became an important subtype of realistic art during the 17th century. This new subsection of realism emphasized the symbolism of its subjects rather than their beauty.
Common themes in Vanitas Paintings
Vanitas Art originated in the Netherlands, France and Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries, during the Dutch Golden Era of Art. These paintings were most popular between 1550 to around 1650.
Vanitas art is designed as a mirror to reflect the viewer’s mortality. For this, the artist may choose direct symbols of death such as a memento mori. Memento mori is a Latin phrase that directly translates as “remember death”. It is commonly depicted by a skull, with or without other bones or the whole skeleton. Some less common symbols of death include clocks, burning candles, rotting food, and soap bubbles. All these elements hint toward the passing of time and the transient quality of materialistic things in life, that inevitably fade.
The second most important theme is the emphasis on our unnecessary pursuit of vanity. The most common symbols of vanity are seafood, meat, ornaments, and designer clothing. All of these things are expensive and hence a luxury. Indulgence was clearly looked down upon and presented in a negative light.
Vanitas paintings were promoted by Calvinism. Calvinism is a lesser-known branch of Protestantism. These paintings brought relief to the immense religious tensions in Europe and helped to promote the principles of Protestantism. The word of Protestantism was spread through printed media, mostly books that have also been shown in these paintings. The books however are usually closed and if open they are in poor condition. This points toward the increasing disregard for knowledge and spirituality.
These paintings ironically became a status symbol in Dutch society. Initially, a Vanitas was considered important on account of its moral message. However, these paintings became increasingly popular and the handmade originals became very costly.
Following are some of the most famous Vanitas Paintings in the world:
The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster
Judith Leyster’s 1639 ‘The Last Drop’ is a unique vanitas painting in which we see active drama instead of the usual still-life depiction in such works. The painting has another title – ‘The Gay Cavalier’ – which has led many to speculate that the two men are gay. However, it might just be a reference to their gay or happy spirit.
The first thing we notice is indubitably the skeleton in the middle of the two men. The figure acts as an essential memento mori, positioned such that it looks at the left man closely as if waiting for his death.
The men are obviously intoxicated, as they are depicted with alcohol in one hand and a lit cigar in the other. Both these elements represent indulgence. The smoke coming from the cigar symbolizes the momentary nature of pleasure.
Thus, the painting points toward the importance of using our time wisely as death looks at us straight in the eye.
Still Life with a Skull and a Quill by Pieter Claesz
Claesz’s 1628 still life painting is a more classic example of a Vanitas painting. The eyes fall first upon the skull which acts as a reminder of death and the impermanence of life. The tipped-over glass of wine symbolizes the emptiness of materialistic pleasure. The reflection on this glass nudges the viewer to introspect and reflect on their actions. A nearly extinguished lamp near the memento mori reminds us how easily the flame of life can be snuffed out by a breeze of death.
Allegory of Vanity by Antonio de Pereda
The Allegory of Vanity by Pereda is an extremely detailed and intricate painting. The viewer first notices the shyly glimmering wings of the angelic figure. Next, we see a big pile of skulls on the far left. Other elements include some books, an armor, weapons, a candle, money, cards, and jewelry. These small details act as reminders of death and the futility of indulgence.
The most interesting detail is the globe in the angel’s hand with a small portrait of the king of Spain on top of it. This setup metaphorically depicts the king having conquered the whole world, but at the same time shows us how trivial all of it is. This miniature representation of power condemns the pointless search for power and glory.
The Penitent Magdalen by Georges De La Tour
This vanitas painting has a strong biblical reference. The frame portrays Mary Magdalen, in a reflective pose. Magdalen was one of Jesus’ disciples who gave up on her extravagant life in exchange for a life of penance and prayer.
Some clear vanitas symbols in the painting are a mirror, a burning candle, and a skull. The mirror reflects the candle’s flame and symbolizes the importance of introspection. The candle points toward the brevity of life and the discarded jewelry represents the triviality of luxury. The skull is a reminder of death and mortality.
Allegory of the Vanities of the World by Pieter Boel
Pieter Boel’s 1663 painting titled ‘Allegory of the Vanities of the World’ is a true example of art from the Dutch Baroque era. The painting features realism, intricate detail, and dramatic chaos.
The scene has been angled such that it enhances the vastness of the architecture and highlights the majestic setting. We see a chaotic display of luxurious items such as rich robes and ornaments that represent indulgence. The large bejeweled crown and armor depict honor and authority. The globe in the center not only depicts knowledge but also the finiteness of the world and life.
The setting makes us aware of the chaos that materialism can add to a simple life. The absence of people in the middle of an opulent mess reflects the meaninglessness of earthly delights and selfishness in the face of death.
St. Jerome Doing Penance in his Study by Luis Tristán
While most Vanitas paintings depict worldly temptations warning us against the repercussions of overindulgence, Tristán’s painting takes a different approach. One of the most striking features of the painting is the beautiful and skilled use of chiaroscuro.
We see St. Jerome praying in solitude, with one hand on a skull and the other beating a stone on his chest. The painting depicts a religious standard that people are expected to follow. As he looks up to the crucifix in prayer, his hand on the skull shows that he is constantly aware of his mortality and yet chooses to spend his time in penance.
Vanitas Paintings aims to remind us that material gains are trivial and that death is the greatest leveler for all. Time steadily marches forward and with every passing moment, we have less life left over. The artist subtly reprimands us against indulgence in worldly pursuits while emphasizing the importance of time.
Frequently Asked Questions: Vanitas Paintings
What is a vanitas painting?
Vanitas paintings are an important subgenre of Dutch Baroque Art. These paintings usually depict elements that remind the viewer about the transient quality of life and the insignificance of materialistic pleasures. One of the most common features in these paintings is a memento mori, depicted in the form of a skull.
What is an example of vanitas painting?
Following are excellent examples of Vanitas Paintings: The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster, St Jerome Doing Penance in his Study by Luis Tristán, and The Penitent Magdalen by Georges De La Tour.
What is the moral lesson of vanitas painting?
Vanitas paintings had a strong moral message which is why they were so popular in religious institutions. These art pieces nudge the viewer to remember their mortality and steer clear of indulgence.
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