“The Latin word vanitas has two different applications as does its English cognate ‘vanity’. The original Latin adjective vanus means both ‘empty’ and ‘frivolous’. In the Vanitas tradition of the 17th century, Vanitas paintings were considered by their owners to be both beautiful objects and works of spiritual contemplation concerned with the impermanence of man and his earthly pleasures in the face of the unavoidable and definitive nature of death.” (All Visual Arts)
“A vanitaspainting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent. The vanitas evolved from simple pictures of skulls and other symbols of death and transience frequently painted on the reverse sides of portraits during the late Renaissance.
Although a few vanitas pictures include figures, the vast majority are pure still lifes, containing certain standard elements: symbols of arts and sciences (books, maps, and musical instruments), wealth and power (purses, jewelry, gold objects), and earthly pleasures (goblets, pipes, and playing cards); symbols of death or transience (skulls, clocks, burning candles, soap bubbles, and flowers); and, sometimes, symbols of resurrection and eternal life (usually ears of corn or sprigs of ivy or laurel).
As the century progressed, other elements were included, the mood lightened, and the palette became diversified. Objects were often tumbled together in disarray, suggesting the eventual overthrow of the achievements they represent.” (Britannica)
“This form of Christian art was refined by Dutch Realist artists during the Dutch Golden Age of the early 17th century, as a reaction to Roman Catholicism andCatholic Counter-Reformation Art, and to meet the new austere aesthetics of Protestant Reformation Art in Northern Europe. Vanitas paintings, which flourished during the period 1620-1650, became especially popular with well-to-do devoutly Protestant citizens in Holland, following the country’s revolt against the colonial rule of Catholic Spain.
A vanitas picture contains collections of objects symbolic of the transitory nature of life, the vanity of wealth and the inevitability of death. Viewers are asked to reconsider their misguided coveting of worldly pleasures and possessions, to remember their mortality, and to repent for their sins. Vanitasstill lifes – the only religious art approved of in Holland – appealed to wealthy Protestants for their realism and moralistic message, but also (one suspects) because they helped to ease their conscience for having acquired so much worldly wealth.
The futility of trying to do without God is the constant characteristic theme of vanitas painting. The flowers will wilt, the fruit will rot, and even the worthless game and the purse full of money cannot deceive us as to the inevitability of our eventual demise. (The Sic transit gloria mundi theme, that worldly things are fleeting”.) Even the accomplishments of science and literature have no lasting existence, neither does music.
Ironically, vanitas paintings were themselves examples of valuable worldly goods and, as such, became ‘Vanitas’ objects themselves.
Vanitas still lives first appeared in the Low Countries around 1550, and gradually gained in popularity. In a sense, their covert religious content fulfilled the spiritual need left untended by the decision of the Protestant Church not to commission any large religious works. The centre of vanitas painting was the Dutch town of Leiden, an important site of Calvinist theology, with its focus on man’s sinful nature and its stern moral code. As it was, certain towns had a preference for certain vanitas symbols. Thus art collectors in Leiden – a university town – favoured books and skulls, while those in the Hague – a market centre – preferred fish with its traditional Christian meanings, while Amsterdam favoured flowers.
During the golden era of Dutch Baroque art a number of artistic movements sprang up in towns like Haarlem, Delft, Leiden, Utrecht, Dordrecht and Amsterdam. The greatest vanitas painters from these schools include the following: from Leiden, David Bailly (1584-1657) – often wrongly credited with the invention of the genre; from Delft, his nephew Harmen van Steenwyck(1612-56); from Utrecht, Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83); from Amsterdam,Willem Kalf (1622-93); from Haarlem, Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1681) and Pieter Claesz (1597-1660); and from Dordrecht, Samuel van Hoogstraten(1627-78). In addition, one might even include Jan Vermeer (1632-75) as avanitas painter, as many of his single-figure genre paintings are as moralistically symbolic as any work by Steenwyck et al. In France still life andvanitas painting was dominated by Jean Chardin (1699-1779), while in Spain the greatest vanitas artist was Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664).” (Visual Arts)