Obelisk Art History
Themes in Art

Vanitas

Vanitas is a loose category of artwork that illustrates the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death — often featuring heavy-handed allegory in the form of skulls, insects, rotting plants, candles burning low and hourglasses draining out a last few grains of sand. Vanitas paintings are so called for the verse in Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8 from the King James Bible: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It’s also thought that vanitas artwork allowed artists during religious eras like the Nothern Renaissance a sneaky excuse to paint still-lives of beautiful, decadent objects behind a moral facade.

Reed Enger, "Vanitas," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 13, 2018; last modified May 23, 2018, http://arthistoryproject.com/subjects/vanitas/.

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Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette, Vincent Van Gogh

Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette

Vincent Van Gogh, c. 1885-1886
Still Life, Edwaert Collier

Still Life

Edwaert Collier, 1699
Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’, Edwaert Collier

Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’

Edwaert Collier, 1696
Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull, Edwaert Collier

Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull

Edwaert Collier, 1663
Vanitas Still Life, Edwaert Collier

Vanitas Still Life

Edwaert Collier, 1675
Vanitas Still-life, Maria van Oosterwijck

Vanitas Still-life

Maria van Oosterwijck, 1668
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