“V” is for #Vanitas! Join us for the next two weeks as we explore this topic in art history. When you hear the word “vanitas,” does anything in particular come to mind?
Vanitas, the Latin word for vanity, refers to works of art that portray the transience of life. The term itself comes from the Bible, referring to the line: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2) Most often seen in still lifes from the 16th and 17th centuries, artists sought to depict the brevity of earthly life in contrast to the importance of the afterlife. An artist might have used symbols referring to the ephemeral quality of youth, beauty, fame, and fortune in comparison to the transcendent significance of eternal life. In vanitas paintings, look for the human skull, burned out candles, peeled or rotting fruit, a broken glass, an empty chair, soap bubbles or cut flowers; these all may suggest the fragility of our daily lives. These reminders of death serve to underscore the “vanity” of life and the need to be morally prepared for final judgment in the afterlife.
Take a close look at this still life painting of cut flowers by 17th-century artist Peter Binoit. What do you notice? How might this be considered a “vanitas” picture? What can you spot that might indicate the transience of life? #ArtAtoZ
Peter Binoit, “Still Life with Tulips,” 1623, oil on copper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Robert H. and Clarice Smith, 2012.99.2