Art Term Tuesday: Vanitas

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Still lives are traditionally looked down upon as the “simple” or “easy” genre in art history. Their compositions don’t have the drama of historical or mythological paintings and they don’t preserve the likenesses of powerful people in perpetuity; instead, still lives are just a random collection of objects without much a of a connection– or are they? While it is argued that your run-of-the-mill still life assignment in “Introduction to Drawing” class is nothing more than an exercise in composition, there are specific types of still lives that are more than just an assemblage of domestic objects.

This brings us to our term for this week: vanitas. Vanitas, Latin for “vanity”, is a painting that contains collections of objects symbolic of both the vanity and transience of life, through earthly achievements and pleasures, and the inevitability of death. Its point is to remind the viewer that life is fleeting and to exercise morality, or, you can’t take it with you when you die. Vanitas paintings reached their peak in the mid-17th century, particularly in the Netherlands, when Calvinism ( a religion that emphasized a strict moral and religious code) was popular. The term “vanitas” was pulled from the opening line of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, “vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The thought was that these paintings would remind people that no matter how successful they may be in life they would ultimately leave it all behind in death. These works of art often contain a skull as a reference to physical death; but, as we’ll see, a skull is not a requirement for vanitas artworks.

A still life with a dark background, light from an unknown source on the left shines on the objects gathered on the table: skull, shell, compass, book, instruments, and silk fabrics.
Harmen Steenwijck, Dutch, 1612 – 1656. Vanitas Still-Life. Oil on panel, 1640. Public domain, National Gallery of Art, London.

The earliest vanitas works of art are closely related to memento mori, Latin for “remember you must die”, which almost always contain skulls and extinguished candles – subtle these early works were not. These compositions began as simple pictures of skulls and other symbols of the transience of life (like extinguished candles) painted on the reverse side of portraits during the Renaissance – a reminder for the sitter that their time on earth is limited. By 1550 vanitas became its own genre, and was popular in its own right by 1620. At this point the paintings were largely monochromatic, and references to death and eternity were in the forefront. We can see this in Harmen Steenwijck’s 1640 painting, above, Vanitas Still-Life. While this composition does indeed contain allusions to a rich earthly life (a pearlescent conch shell, books, instruments, and a large decorative vase), the skull is centrally placed. The color palette also keeps the skull front and center; while we have punches of pink and blue, the majority of the objects on the table with our skull are gold, tan, or ivory, creating a harmonious and clear composition. The light emanating from the left hand corner, perhaps a window outside the composition, shines directly on the head of the skull, further drawing our eyes to it. There are few distractions from the painting’s core moral message.

A crowded table, covered by silk fabric, takes up the majority of the composition. On top  of the table is a skull, compass, sheets of music, an open book, a globe, and a sword. In the back right corner is a column.
Evert Collier, Dutch, 1642-1707. Vanitas with Books, Instruments, and an Astronomical on a Table. Oil on panel, c. 1688. Public domain, Museum der bildenden Kunste.

As the 17th century marched on, the differences between vanitas and memento mori became clearer – while memento mori works continued to feature skulls, extinguished candles, and flowers, vanitas compositions began to include more symbols of pleasure. In addition to the instruments and books seen in Collier’s painting (left), we begin to see objects such as gold, silver, glasses, jewelry, fruit, and decadent meals. Why start including all these rich and fancy items? Artists wanted to create moral compositions, but as patrons became more successful they also wanted beautiful paintings. So, pairing jewels, fruit, cakes, books, and instruments with reminders of fleeting earthly life gave moral justification for painting attractive objects – a pretty painting can’t be a waste of earthly frivolity if it reminds viewers that it won’t last! Evert Collier’s 1688 painting, Vanitas with Books, Instruments, and an Astronomical on a Table, shows us how cluttered this genre could become. While we do have our skull at the front of the table it’s been squeezed in amongst a compass, flute, bust, conch shell (gilded this time), astronomical globe, a lute, overflowing books and scrolls, and a sword atop a richly covered table. Clearly, the patron for this painting was living a successful life; however, they want visitors to know how humble they really are, as seen in the skull, though it’s clearly not the main aspect of the composition anymore.

In just two examples, we’ve seen how the skull began to be pushed aside in vanitas compositions. Did it ever go away completely? Yes, it did! Willem Claesz Heda’s (below) 1637 painting, Dessert: Still Life with Cake, Wine, Beer, and Nuts, shows us the growing popularity of stuffing more decadence into these moral compositions and negating the inclusion of a skull entirely. While we do see Heda taking advantage of the self-indulgent elements to display his skill at still life painting, we have subtle clues to vanitas. First, there is the more obvious inclusion of the ray of light coming in from the upper left-hand corner, shining down on the table. This is an allusion to the eternal life available through religious repentance, offering an escape from eternal demise. This is more obvious when we take into consideration that this meal, a half-eaten fruit pie, nuts, and beer and wine goblets has ended, or died; it’s over. With the ray coming in and touching on the remains, the “death” of the meal is brought to the forefront of the viewer’s mind and encourages them to take stock of their own salvation. At times artists would include flies hovering around the spent meal, but Heda has clearly left this imagery aside, not wanting to make his allusions to death too obvious.

A sparse table, covered by a silk cloth, holds a half eaten slice of pie, multiple goblets, one overturned, and a soup tureen.

Willem Claesz Heda, Dutch, 1594-1608. Dessert: Still Life with Cake, Wine, Beer, and Nuts. Oil on panel, 1637. Public domain, National Museum in Warsaw

Vanitas fell out of favor by the late 17th century, however, their influence was seen for decades beyond and it wasn’t uncommon to include small elements of vanitas in later compositions. Keep this in mind the next time you come across a still life – if you see a skull, a candle, or even a wilting flower, the artist may be calling upon iconography from the 17th century in their contemporary works to allude to the fickleness of this world. Take the Katja Oxman print below, what aspects allude to a vanitas work?

A still life with plants, postcards, a box, and a print overlaid on a patterned tablecloth atop a wood table. In the left corner is a window with a fly on the sill.
Katja Oxman, German American, b. 1942. If Bird the Silence Contradict. Copperplate etching; aquatint on paper, 1997. Gift of the Artist, 2016.197.a+b. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

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