Few people in the 16th and 17th century had the ability to read or write. Art was infused with symbols intended to communicate certain ideals, concepts and emotion.
in , a genre of that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.
A vanitas contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent.
The vanitas evolved from simple pictures of skulls and other symbols of death and transience frequently painted on the reverse sides of portraits during the late Renaissance. It had acquired an independent status by c. 1550 and by 1620 had become a popular genre. Its development until its decline about 1650 was centred in Leiden, in the , an important seat of Calvinism, which emphasized humanity’s total depravity and advanced a rigid moral code.
Although a few vanitas pictures include figures, the vast majority are pure still lifes, containing certain standard elements:
-symbols of arts and sciences (books, maps, and musical instruments)
-wealth and power (purses, jewelry, gold objects)
-earthly pleasures (goblets, pipes, and playing cards)
-symbols of death or transience (skulls, clocks, burning candles, soap bubbles, and flowers)
-and, sometimes, symbols of resurrection and eternal life (usually ears of corn or sprigs of ivy or laurel).
The earliest vanitas pictures were sombre, somewhat monochromatic compositions of great power, containing only a few objects (usually books and a skull) executed with elegance and precision. As the century progressed, other elements were included, the mood lightened, and the palette became diversified.
Objects were often tumbled together in disarray, suggesting the eventual overthrow of the achievements they represent. Somewhat ironically, the later vanitas paintings became largely a pretext for meticulous virtuosity in the rendering of varied textures and surfaces, but the artistic quality of the genre in no sense declined. Several of the greatest Dutch still-life painters, including David Bailly, , , Pieter Potter, and Harmen and Pieter van Steenwyck, were masters of the vanitas still life, and the influence of the genre can be seen in the iconography and technique of other contemporary painters, including .
Vanities is still life artwork which includes various symbolic objects designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the worthlessness of worldly goods and pleasures.
The term originally comes from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’
Vanitas are closely related to memento mori still lifes which are artworks that remind the viewer of the shortnes and fragility of life (memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’) and include symbols such as skulls and extinguished candles. However vanitas still-lifes also include other symbols such as musical instruments, wine and books to remind us explicitly of the vanity (in the sense of worthlessness) of worldly pleasures and goods.
Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' 1696
Oil on canvas
In this still-life painting the musical instruments, wine and jewels represent the fleeting pleasures of life, while the skull and hour-glass symbolise the inevitability of death. The open book shows a brief poem emphasising the theme of mortality. The Latin inscription in the top left corner comes from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. This is why such pictures are known as vanitas paintings. Born in the Netherlands, Collier arrived in England in 1693 to produce still-life paintings like this to sell to the English market. He died in London in 1708.
Gallery label, February 2016