The Emptiness of It All: Vanitas paintings

Charles Allan Gilbert (1873-1929), All is Vanity (1892), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

We all go through times when life seems so transient and empty, when worldly goods and the pleasures of the flesh are hollow and fleeting. World events of the last year or two have brought many to feel the same.

It may be comforting to know that this is not unique to our age. From time to time, there have been periods in which the emptiness and transience of life have become such dominant themes that they have been expressed in waves of art: in European painting, in the form of Vanitas (vanity) paintings.

With its long Christian tradition, European art has associated these feelings with the worthlessness of earthly possessions, and the promise of life after death. These are crystallised in the wisdom literature of the Bible, in particular a verse from Ecclesiastes, which is given in the Latin translation of the Vulgate as vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, rendered into English as vanity of vanities, all is vanity, although here the word vanity refers to emptiness and futility, rather than conceit.

The key concepts to be expressed by a Vanitas painting thus include:

  • the brevity of life on earth,
  • the imminence of death,
  • the worthlessness of earthly riches,
  • the futility of earthly pursuits and pleasures.

Because these are all abstract concepts, the challenge in every Vanitas painting is to find the right objects which symbolise those concepts. This is generally accomplished through an allegorical language. They also overlap with other popular themes in painting, such as the Memento mori, or reminder of one’s own mortality. Although particularly popular in the Low Countries, which are now Belgium and The Netherlands, they are also to be found in works by artists from other areas.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500–1579), Vanitas (c 1535-40), media and dimensions not known, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

These paintings have their origins back in the Northern Renaissance. For example, Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s Vanitas from about 1535-40 features an unusual androgynous angel with butterfly wings, cradling a human skull with fragmentary Latin inscriptions. Within the skull is an inset window, through which there is a tiny landscape view.

Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621), Still Life of Fruit, Dead Birds and a Monkey (1615-20), oil on panel, 47.4 x 65.6 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

When Vanitas paintings became popular, they were most commonly expressed in carefully composed still lifes. Clara Peeters’ Fruit, Dead Birds and a Monkey (1615-20) shows a typically peculiar collection of objects: at first glance a basket of fruit, but the grapes are covered with bloom, a peach is going rotten, and there is a fly on an apple. The little monkey, busy feeding from nuts, is gazing at a small pile of dead birds.

These became elaborate and contrived at times, and sometimes involved a self-portrait.

Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621), Vanitas Portrait of a Woman (Self-Portrait?) (c 1618), oil on panel, 37.2 x 50.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Peeters’ Vanitas Portrait of a Woman, the artist gazes into the distance, probably a carefully-angled mirror which she used to see her own reflection. Beside her head is a bubble, a sign that this is a Vanitas painting. In front of her, on the table, are the contents of a still life, with the worldly symbols of Vanitas: gold and silver coins, jewellery, a couple of dice, with their association with chance and earthly pleasures such as gaming.

Cornelis de Vos (1585–1651), Allegory on Transitoriness (1620-29), oil on canvas, 190 x 194 cm, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

In Cornelis de Vos’s Allegory on Transitoriness (1620-29), a mother (quite possibly the artist’s wife) sits looking full of Vanitas, as her two children blow soap bubbles. Around her, the family’s most valuable possessions are piled up: gold, silver, porcelain, a lute, a string of pearls and other jewellery, and the younger child’s foot rests on a sack of cash.

Carstian Luyckx (1623–after 1657), Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life (date not known), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL. Image by Sean Pathasema, via Wikimedia Commons.

Carstian Luyckx brings in additional objects to his undated Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life. These include a globe, the physical world itself, the gall from a tree, a snuffed-out candle, seashells, and coral. He uses another common device found in Vanitas painting: an open book, here showing King Charles I, who was executed in 1649, and his wife Henrietta Maria of France, who was deposed as queen of England by the civil wars, which forced her to flee to France in 1644.

David Bailly (1584–1657), Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols (1651), oil on panel, 65 x 97.5 cm, Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

It is sometimes straightforward to read what appears at first to be a complex web of allegory. David Bailly’s Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols (1651) contains multiple portraits which refer to the past. The figure shows him as a much younger man, holding the maulstick he used in painting. His actual self-portrait at the time is in the painting which he holds with his left hand. Next to that is a painting of his wife, who had already died, and a ghostly image of her is projected onto the wall behind the wine glass.

Gathered in front of the artist are ephemera and other signs of Vanitas: the snuffed-out candle, a glass of wine, flowers, and soap bubbles, together with a string of pearls and a skull. If that message is not clear enough, he provides the quotation on a piece of paper: vanitas vanitum et omnia vanitas, together with his signature and date.

This painting is also unusual for its innovative use of colour and monochrome passages to distinguish its features from their ground.

Evert Collier (c 1640–1708), A Vanitas (1669), oil on canvas, 33 × 46.5 cm, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO. Wikimedia Commons.

Evert Collier’s A Vanitas from 1669 is a later collection, showing additional objects which became involved in the allegory, including a sword, armour, fine fabrics, and ornamental feathers.

Karel Dujardin (1626–1678), Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles, an Allegory on the Transitoriness and Brevity of Life (1663), oil on canvas, 116 × 96.5 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Some later Vanitas paintings developed the theme of young boys blowing bubbles, as in Karel Dujardin’s Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles, an Allegory on the Transitoriness and Brevity of Life (1663).

Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), Penitent Mary Magdalene (c 1635-40), oil on canvas, 97 x 66 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Another motif in which feelings of Vanitas became involved is that of Mary Magdalen(e), shown well in Jusepe de Ribera’s Penitent Mary Magdalene (c 1635-40), who leans her head against a skull, with a small globe in the foreground.

I’m not aware of much use of Vanitas symbolism in paintings during the eighteenth century, but see a resurgence in the late nineteenth.

Félicien Rops (1833–1898), cover illustration for Les Epaves (Scraps) by Charles Baudelaire (1866), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the vanguard in their return was the irreverent Félicien Rops, as in his cover illustration for Charles Baudelaire’s Les Épaves (Scraps) (1866). Here he allies the skeleton of death with the seven deadly sins, named in Latin inscriptions in the lower half of his drawing.

Charles Allan Gilbert (1873-1929), All is Vanity (1892), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

C Allan Gilbert is more subtle in his compelling drawing of All is Vanity (1892). What appears to be an image of a woman sat in front of the mirror of her dressing table turns out to be a huge skull, with the woman’s head (its original and reflection) forming the empty eye sockets, and the perfume bottles its teeth.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Young Man With a Skull (1896-98), oil on canvas, 130.2 × 97.3 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Some of Paul Cézanne’s post-Impressionist paintings centre on skulls too. His Young Man With a Skull (1896-98) looks full of Vanitas and ennui.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Pyramid of Skulls (1898-1900), oil on canvas, 39 × 46.5 cm, Private Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Cézanne also painted different arrangements of skulls, here in his Pyramid of Skulls (1898-1900), for example.

In the late nineteenth century, as it came to become a dominant theme in European society, death was prominent in many paintings. The great Polish narrative painter Jacek Malczewski was among those who visited this repeatedly, with several images which hark back to the Vanitas tradition, but interpreted in a contemporary way.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Thanatos (1898-9), oil on canvas, 45 × 57.5 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Thanatos (1898-9), the Greek word and personification for death, was the earliest. He has revised Greek myth completely from its traditional male guise, casting the figure of death as a young woman, still bearing her symbolic scythe, but allied here with Eros. Naked under her scant scarlet robes, she sizes up an old man who is cowering at his window.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Thanatos II (1899), oil on canvas, 124 × 73 cm, Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, Łódź, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

In the next, Thanatos II (1899), the scene is set under cold moonlight at the artist’s mansion. Holding her scythe, Thanatos has regained her traditional wings, which seem more butterfly than bird, recalling van Hemessen’s Vanitas from over three hundred years earlier. Behind her the mansion looks to be burning, figures and several dogs gathered on the lawn in front of it.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Death (1902), oil on canvas, 98 × 75 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Then in Death (1902), her skin assumes the ghastly green of the putrefying corpse, as she closes the eyelids of the artist himself, adding the element of self-portraiture.

Hermann Behrens (1865-1909), Nude Woman with Death as a Vanitas Allegory (1901), oil on canvas, 180 x 107 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Hermann Behrens brought in a more traditional skull and skeleton to personify death in his Nude Woman with Death as a Vanitas Allegory (1901).

Since then, death, skulls, and other symbols associated with Vanitas have been revived in many other paintings and works of art, even to Damian Hirst’s diamond-studded platinum skull of For the Love of God (2007). For that really is vanity.