Art History  •  Movements and techniques

Vanitas Painting, Death, and Decadence

As a subgroup of still life, Vanitas painting is a category of art that aims to show the temporary nature of life, the futility of pleasure, and the inevitability of death. Vanitas painting often feature symbols of wealth, death and ephemerality. There are two main categories of Vanitas painting: those which symbolize death with objects such as skulls, candles and withered flowers and those which symbolize fleeting pleasures with objects such as books, jewelry and money. Many paintings combine symbols of death and ephemerality.

Like the genre of still life painting, Vanitas painting finds its origin in the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life

Vanitas painting: Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life

An extinguished candle, an empty glass, a watch and a skull. This is not a random collection of objects. Each piece serves as a momento mori, a reminder of death.

Pieter Claesz became well-known for his still-life vanitas painting that used a limited palette. In Vanitas Still Life, for example, the painting is entirely cmposed of brown and green hues save for the dash of blue used to color the ribbon on the edge of the table. The result is a dark and sombre painting that recollects, earth, rot, and the cycle of life and death.

Antonio de Pereda, Allegory of Vanity

Vanitas painting: Antonio de Pereda, Allegory of Vanity

The influence of Netherlandish still life painting is clear in Spanish artist Antonio de Pereda’s 1632 painting, Allegory of Vanity. The painting uses symbols of vanity long-established in Netherlandish art: skulls, a blown-out candle, an hourglass, and the insciption to its left “Nil omne”, “All is nothing”. To these items, Pereda adds pieces of armor and a firearm on a bare wooden surface. Together, the objects reference the passage of time, happiness, war, beauty and science, all supposed attributes of vanity.

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Skull (Nature morte au crâne)

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Skull (Nature morte au crâne)

This post-impressionist vanita painting is a drastic change from Cézanne’s typical paintings of the bourgeoisie in their leisure time. Cézanne was known to paint still lifes, though they typically favored ordinary household items like napkins, fruit, and pottery. Still Life with Skull was painting during last decade of his life, perhaps signalling a preoccupation with the subject of mortality. The slight smears of orange paint across the eyes of the skull are probably the result of this canvas leaning against another of Cézanne’s paintings in his Aix-en-Provence studio.

Charles Allan Gilbert, All is Vanity

Charles Allan Gilbert, All is Vanity

As the youngest of three brothers, the American painter Charles Allan Gilbert was often sick and bedridden as a child. To pass the time, he began sketching. As an adult, he studied at the Art Students League of New York and then opened a studio. “All is Vanity” is one of his most famous painting. The vanitas painting depicts a young woman staring at her reflection in a skull-shaped mirror. The point of Gilbert’s painting is more than clear.

Explore Vanitas Painting on Singulart.

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