Friday, February 24, 2017


There is an old tradition in painting, the "vanitas." Particularly among Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, vanitas paintings were quite common. The term derives from a phrase in the book of Ecclesiates in the King James bible that says "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." But the phrase actually isn't about narcissism or pride. The Latin it derives from is "vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas," though it is a mistake to translate it as our contemporary "vanity" because the meaning of vanitas in those times was futility, or meaninglessness. So a vanitas painting was a way to emphasize that life ends whether early or late, and earthly life is futile. A vanitas painting is full of symbols reminding us of the evanescence of life. Most vanitas paintings contain one or several of various items: a skull symbolizes death; rotting fruit tells us of decay; bubbles show the suddenness of mortality; the brevity of life was often symbolized by smoke, or timepieces.

A particular favorite of mine is by Pieter Claesz, painted about 1630. Like many paintings of the time, it has a mellow, nearly monochromatic brown tone and depicts a skull and femur on a closed book (perhaps the accounting of one's life?). An overturned cup symbolizes life leaving the body. And there is an ornate watch on the table as well.

Claesz was a well-known still life painter who lived in Haarlem most of his life. He painted many images of tables over-laden with food and other objects.

Another favorite of mine is "Young Man with a Skull," by Franz Hals, painted about 1627. Although others have occasionally interpreted this as a trony of Hamlet, perhaps, in reality it is also a vanitas. The composition is particularly striking. Hals directs us to see the skull, perhaps even before we notice how young the subject seems to be. Perhaps Hals meant the viewer to recognize the fragility of life, even in the young. Certainly in that era the average lifespan was quite short, and there was very high mortality even among the young.

In spite of smile, it is clear that the picture of the young man is a warning.

"Risk Factors," oil, 2013
In part because I enjoy a challenge (skulls have quite intricate anatomy) and partly to come up with a modern take on a vanitas painting, I did this in oil, incorporating symbols of mortality but also including images of various items that increase the risk of heart attack: a pack of cigarettes, a stick of butter (indicating a high fat diet), a doughnut, and a shaker of salt (high salt diets increase high blood pressure, a risk for heart disease). The cover over the doughnut is a bubble. Some have asked why the ball cap is reversed, and I've always answered that it symbolizes the foolishness that allows us to consume too much sugar, fat, and salt.

This painting was featured a couple of years back in the Des Moines Register in an article about a local art exhibition.
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