An Exploration of Vanitas: The 17th Century and the Present 

"Vanity of vanities. All is vanity." Ecclesiastes 1:2 succinctly describes the vanitas movement that began in response to the prosperity in 18th century Holland. Vanitas artists devoted themselves to communicating to the prosperous public that things of this world--pleasures, money, beauty, power--are not everlasting properties. Rather, the nature of life and the world is fleeting, finite, and temporary. Artists use significant symbols such as skulls, wilting flowers, and hour glasses to convey this theme throughout their works. The movement has continued through today, as artists combat prevalent prosperity in the post-modern West. Artists take on one of two approaches within this theme. The first is a hopeful approach, comparing the fleeting and vain nature of earthly things to the eternal nature of a glorious after life. The second approach does not point to a transcendent future, but rather speaks to the fleeting nature of existence itself. Their works proclaim: this life is all there is, so do not let it pass by before enjoying all of its pleasures. The purpose of this exhibit is to explore the theme of vanitas as portrayed in the 17th century and today, while also comparing and contrasting the works of art that offer a sense of hope in the after life or a sense of urgency to enjoy the present. 

Jan Miense Molenaer's "Allegory of Vanity" is a classic example of vanitas art. Many symbols flow throughout the piece that symbolize luxury, finitude, and pleasure: instruments, the ring on her finger, the map on the back wall, etc. A sense of meaningless is also conveyed through the woman and her relationship with her son. The woman sits, staring off solemnly into the distance as she holds a ring and mirror in her hands and rests her feet upon a skull. Her servant works with her hair, possibly the final touch on her extravagant appearance. Meanwhile, her son fights for her attention, but cannot rescue his mother from her slavery to the meaninglessness of this life.
Spanish artist Antonio de Pereda offers a contrasting approach to the vanity of this life. Although the woman is surrounded by worldly goods--travel, fine jewelry, and money--she is also aware of the inevitability of death as shown by the skulls, hourglass, and candlestick. Morbidity and hopelessness are not communicated, though, for the woman is aware of her transcendence of the natural world. She is not living for the now, with such fleeting and temporary things; rather, she is conscious of her eternal destiny in the afterlife.
This 17th century oil on canvas offers a unique example of a vanitas painting. Two men, understood to be gay by the title, are found giving into their pleasures through drink and dance. Behind them is a skeleton trying to capture their attentions as he holds an hourglass and skull in his hands, "evok[ing] the morbid thought of impermanence and the inevitability of death" (Vincent Park). "The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier)" sends a vanitas message to live now well, for time is passing quickly and death is upon us.
Although not intentionally a vanitas painting, "St. Jerome Doing Penance in his Study" communicates the transcendent perspective of some vanitas artists. St. Jerome looks upwards to God as his hand rests on a skull (a classic vanitas symbol of death). He devotes his life to God and holiness in response to recognizing the fleeting and sinful nature of this world. He even commits himself to acts of penance that stand in stark contrast to the messages of other vanital paintings that proclaim pleasure in its full. Although suffering is sensed in this scene, hope is also found in St. Jerome's heavenly gaze.
"The Ambassadors" provides another positive approach to the vanitas movement. Shown are two men, the French ambassador to England on the left and the bishop of Lavaur on the right, leaning against a shelf adorned with various vanitas symbols: a globe, sun dial, musical instruments, books, etc. These men are understood to be learned, traveled, and exposed to the pleasures of the world. A distorted skull that can be accurately seen from one specific perspective is a mysterious reminder of mortality and the inevitability of death. A crucifix hangs discreetly in the upper left corner of the painting. Most often overlooked, this symbol communicates hope and salvation through Jesus Christ that offers eternal life after one passes through the temporary and fleeting world. Although these two men enjoy earthly pleasures, they are still aware of their impending death and have hope in the after life with Jesus Christ.
Joris van Son, a Flemish Baroque artist, approached the vanitas theme in an aesthetically beautiful manner. At first glance, one is instantly captured by the bountiful array of flowers and fruit: roses, grapes, peaches, cherries. A closer look reveals a skull, hourglass, and burning candle positioned in the middle of the piece, resting in the shadows of the colorful wreath of life. A description at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland relates this work to the Resurrection of Christ. In dying with Christ to this fleeting world, man can also rise with him to new life. Hope is communicated through the message that life overcomes death, and beauty transcends the passing of time.
Twenty-three year old Edwaert Collier combined many of the classic vanitas symbols in his oil on canvas work "Vanitas-Still Life with Books and Manuscripts". Among other things depicted are writings, a skull, eyeglasses, an hourglass, and a musical instrument. Collier communicates through this work that life in all aspects is fleeting. Time is simply fading like the sand in the top of an hourglass. People, music, and words will all fade away. One is encouraged to cling to the now and live it as pleasurably as possible, for in time no pleasures will be had.
Graciela Iturbide, a Mexican born artist, captured this photograph as she traveled across Latin America in the 1970s. Although not intentionally a vanitas piece, the main vanitas themes are captures and communicated through the relationship between the skull in the window display and the silhouette of a man passing by. The man retains an anonymity that relates him to the viewer as he briskly walks through life. The skull reminds us that death is a reality, though, regardless of how fast one moves and if one wants to acknowledge it or not. It is as a silent onlooker through all of our days, and will inevitably contront us on our last.
Many contemporary artists have committed themselves to the vanitas movement, as shown by the video above, challenging their viewers to think about death and the true state of the world. A number of them, such as this Korean artist, draw attention to the pleasures of life. Kang assembled an oversized skull with a collage of nude women. Their bodies have been separated and shaped around the skull, intimately uniting death with sensuality and the exploitation of the female body. Although death will come to all men in time, an interior and moral death can preceed the ultimate passing. Are the pleasures of this world leading society into an interior grave?
This two panel acrylic and oil on canvas, and cotton thread painting draws keenly on the vanitas theme through a depiction of the cycle of life, and every man's participation in it. Two young people on the left celebrate their wedding day--a day that should be filled with hope and excitement, but only sobriety wear on their faces. A group of people gather to the right around seven skulls. The married couple will inevitably face the same death as the men that animated those now vacant bones. Life is but a morbid cycle that each man temporarily partakes in.
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