The humble brag of the vanitas

I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. The rabbit hole of Vanitas. It all started with a beautiful documentary about still lifes in history by BBC called “Apples, Pears and Paint: How to Make a Still Life Painting”. Did you know that the very first still life painting known in European history was the “Basket of fruit” by Caravaggio made 1599? I did not! This painting by Caravaggio is stunning when you look into the details. At first glance it looks like a simple painting of a basket of fruits but its absolutely full of symbolism. The maggot holes in the apple, the spots of fungus, the dying leaves,…

Portrayal of opulence and death

But this documentary gave me an renewed obsession of the art form called vanitas. I already love vanitas of the 1500 and 1600s – the contrast between absolute riches and the reminder of death is thrilling. Christian art already had a morbid tradition of portraying death and decay during middle ages as seen in the Ars moriendi, the Danse Macabre, and the Memento mori becoming especially popular during the 15th century. The vanitas continued this gruesome tradition in its own way. The very word “vanitas ” comes from Latin meaning emptiness, futility, or worthlessness, a central warning in the traditional Christian that earthly goods worthless and transient.

Vanitas is a sub genre of the still life and became insanely popular in northern Europe during the 17th century, especially in Netherlands. During the Dutch Golden Age (1575-1675) Netherlands became extremely rich with a growing powerful middle class demanding a very new form of art for their homes. Being a protestant part of Europe, the vanitas became a way of the new middle class to indulge in over the top still life paintings, but adding the medieval reminder of a fleetness of opulence and the vanity of living. This is why many vanitas include for example skulls or instruments, symbolizing that death is around the corner always:

Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit (decay); bubbles (the brevity of life and suddenness of death); smoke, watches, and hourglasses (the brevity of life); and musical instruments (brevity and the ephemeral nature of life). Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled lemon was, like life, attractive to look at but bitter to taste. (Wikipedia)

Touching the trinkets of history

In my rabbit hole I found so many vanitas I absolutely loved, and most of them are from the 17th century. (I probably need to extend this blog to also include the 17th century haha!). Personally I can’t get enough of them, how life like and detailed they are. Looking at them feels like peeking into treasure chests of the 17th century, and it is such a joy to look at all of the exquisite details. It feels like I could reach out and touch the gems, pearls, old books and juicy fruits of the past. I hope you like them as much as I do:

I want to end this entry with a absolutely beautiful vanitas that might surprise you! It is actually a photograph by the modern Australian artist and photographer Kevin Best. I find it being a photo absolutely thrilling, and such an homage to the entire history of the vanitas! Please watch more of his work at his homepage Kevin Best Still Life.

Suggested further reading

Early Netherlandish Painting
Vanitas: Dutch master paintings explained
Edward Collier (1642-1708)
Pieter Claesz (1597-1660)
Hendrick Andriessen (1607-1655)
Adriaen van Utrecht (1599 – 1652)
Carstian Luyckx (1623-1675)
Jan Lievens (1607-1674)
David Bailly (1584-1657)
Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627)
Phillippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)
Kevin Best Still Life

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