The title of this painting references a genre of painting known as vanitas, which was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Usually still-lives, vanitas paintings aimed to remind viewers of their mortality and the fleeting nature of earthly possessions, taking their name from the biblical insistence that “all is vanity”. Cowper is trying to remind us that neither the beautiful woman in her luxurious clothes or the ripe grapes in the background can flourish forever – in time, both will fade and die.
The figure in this painting bears a strong resemblance to the models favoured by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artists Dante Gabriel Rosetti and John Everett Millais in the previous century – particularly her long red hair. In the 1990s, poet Frances Sackett wrote a poem from the perspective of the unknown model, imagining her as perplexed by her role in the creation of the painting: “And so he calls me ‘Vanity’ / And makes me feel the guilt of all / His observation”.
The clothes in the painting show a mixture of historic and contemporary fashion influences. The silver hand-mirror and string of pearls reflect the fashion of the early 20th century, but the predominant influence is Renaissance Italy. The woman wears a ferronière (jewelled headband) in a style that dates back to the 15th century, while the elaborate dress with its serpentine pattern is similar to one depicted in the Italian Renaissance artist Giulio Romano’s Portrait of Margherita Paleologo in the Royal Collection, which Cowper may have studied.
Cowper was born in 1877 and studied at the RA Schools in his twenties. He enjoyed significant critical acclaim early on in his career, writing to his mother that both Vanity and another painting exhibited at the RA in 1907 were “a terrific success. I am continually getting letters from people wanting to buy one or the other.” He was particularly excited that the art dealer Joseph Duveen wanted to buy the work, adding “I can feel sure my work is good if he thinks it worth buying.” It seems Cowper was very attached to Vanity – after selling the painting, he bought it back in 1921 because it was one that he “really wanted to keep”. Eventually, however, his own vanity intervened and he gave the work to the RA Collection, knowing it would serve as an impressive legacy for future generations to admire after his death. After all, you can’t take it with you.