Vanitas: Dutch Master Paintings Explained

Vanitas became a popular genre of Dutch master paintings in the seventeenth century. It utilized the still-life form to evoke the fleeting quality of life and the vanity of living.

Jul 14, 2020By Fraser Hibbitt, BA English Literature
still life edward collier volume withers emblemes
Still Life With a Volume of Wither’s Emblemes by Edward Collier, 1696, via Tate, London


The Dutch Golden Age (1575-1675) produced a remarkable outpouring of artistic genius. This period in Dutch history produced the likes of Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Frans Hals. Dutch master paintings tended towards historical painting, portraiture, and the domestic interior with subjects for the viewer to interpret. 


However, Vanitas, a sub-genre of still-life painting, became increasingly popular during this period, though we possess little to none of this genre by the three masters mentioned. The mastery of Vanitas belonged to names such as Harmen Steenwijck, David Bailly, and Pieter Claesz. 


Vanitas was cultivated in a time of religious tension and was produced as a bulwark for the Protestant mission of self-contemplation. The Dutch Republic, shaking off their Catholic Spanish rulers, had become a proud protestant state and sought to express this sentiment through the art of Vanitas. 

Vanitas, The Awareness of Mortality 

allegory of vanities of human life
Still life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life by Harmen Steenwjick, 1658, via The National Gallery, London

Primarily known as a popular Dutch art genre of the Baroque period (c.1585-1730), Vanitas is closely associated with a cultural phenomenon present in Early Modern Europe known as Memento Mori (Latin for ‘remember you must die’). 


Vanitas paintings are delicate and soaked in detail. They are populated by symbolic imagery which forces the viewer to study the image. When returning to Dutch master paintings of Vanitas we notice something we missed before.


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However, what Vanitas evokes, primarily, is a stark truth. It is true that we will die, and therefore we should give thought to our pursuits and daily practices. The still-life, Vanitas, tells us of the futility of our earthly pursuits in the face of our mortal existence.


Vanitas and Protestantism

georges de la tour the penitent magdalen
The Penitent Magdalen by Georges De La Tour, 1640, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century caused an unprecedented shift in religious thought. As Europe divided itself between Catholicism and sects of Protestantism it brought confusion to many religious issues which were a staple of the Early Modern mind.


During this period, there was a surge towards Iconoclasm (the destruction of holy images) facilitated by the Catholics. Protestants argued that images could be useful for the contemplation of God and holy subjects. Protestantism fostered a more individualistic approach to contemplation in comparison with the communal prayer of Catholicism.


This individualistic sentiment towards contemplation, and the idea that images could serve as references for contemplation, helped guide the Dutch master’s imagination towards Vanitas. The Dutch Republic, being Protestant in the seventeenth century, had a remarkable outpouring of this introspective form of art.


Realism: The Austere Aesthetic

vanitas still life jan jansz
Vanitas Still Life by Jan Jansz, 1648, via The National Gallery, London 


The inspiration for the title ‘Vanitas’ is closely informed by a passage in The Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8): ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. Vanitas was an artistic reaction to the counter-reformation Catholic art. Counter-reformation art focused on the mysteries and saints of the Catholic faith.


Vanitas, however, is realistic and grounded in earthly things, not like the mystical approach of Catholicism. Vanitas is conducive to focusing one’s mind towards the Kingdom of Heaven through what is on earth.


Vanitas paintings are remarkably detailed. Close inspection reveals the skill and fidelity of the artist. The realism in the Dutch master paintings highlights objects of the viewer’s life, therefore, making the painting relatable. Utilizing a realistic style, Vanitas can insulate its primary message; the vanity of earthly things 


Realism puts plainly on canvas the confusion and fleeting aspects of earthly living. It, therefore, helps the viewer to order his/her mind by contrast with the disorderliness of the Vanitas painting.

Dutch Master Paintings and Disorder

pewter and silver vessel still life
Still Life: Pewter and Silver Vessel and a Crab by Willem Claesz, 1633, via The National Gallery, London


A Vanitas painting is striking at first glance because it is disorderly. The canvas is cramped with objects seemingly at random. Not only are the objects symbolic but so is the stylistic choice to cramp them together in this manner. 


The Dutch master paintings offer us a symbolic representation of the instability of the world. Nothing lasts and nothing can sustain against decay and death. It is an austere message with an aim to moralize its viewer. 


Vanitas teaches Protestant ethics. Vanitas reminds us of the attraction of worldly things, and how they are fleeting and unfulfilling in relation to God. It is to keep God and the Holy Kingdom in mind, thus reminding the viewer to act in accordance with God.


Vanitas and The Still Life

pieter clesz still life skull
Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill by Pieter Clesz, 1628, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Vanitas is a variety of the still-life form. A still-life painting consists of inanimate objects, usually objects of everyday life (Vases, cups, plates, food, flowers etc.). It is not that it consists of these objects that makes it important but that the attention and focus of the painting are these objects alone. 


The term itself comes from the Dutch ‘stilleven’ which became the categorizing word for this genre in the mid-seventeenth century. Painting certain objects is to show the viewer something you want to see, and there can be numerous reasons why a certain object is painted or not.


the ambassadors hans holbein
The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, via The National Gallery, London


Take as an example a Renaissance painting (C.1400-1600) by the Old Dutch Master Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The Ambassadors’: The objects painted here wish to give grandeur to the two ambassadors: the globe, spyglass, and the lute all give an impression that these are men of the world; they are cultured and wealthy.


‘The Ambassadors’ serves us well as a precursor for Vanitas. As we see in the foreground of Holbein’s painting, a skull (which must be viewed in person at the gallery for the full effect). Vanitas painting wishes to remind us of our death, and so objects of death, decay, are represented in the later Dutch master paintings with more focus. 


Vanitas, then, is teaching us a moral lesson. It is placing our vanities in contrast with our eventual demise. It is appealing to something which can humble us in our treatment of the world, and those around us. 


A Typical Dutch Master Painting of Vanitas


edward collier still life vanitas
Vanitas Still Life by Edward Collier, 1662, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 


Vanitas paintings differ from standard still-life paintings by the fact that they are symbolic. It is not to showcase objects, or as an aesthetic display of an artist’s skill – though both traits show themselves in a Vanitas painting.


There are several motifs integral to Vanitas. The Dutch Master paintings emphasized different motifs depending on their geographical location as certain regions preferred different motifs. For example, the city of Leiden preferred images of books, being a university town.


The most common motifs are representations of wealth: gold, purses, and jewellery; representations of knowledge: books, spyglass, maps, and pens; representations of pleasure: food, wine cups, and fabrics. Lastly, representations of decay; skulls, flowers, candles, and hourglasses.


claesz still life oysters
Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware by Willem Claesz, 1635, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In Willem Claesz’s ‘Still Life with Oysters’ there are objects of wealth (silver tazza, oysters, wine) overturned and untimely left. The peeled lemon, a common image in Vanitas, reveals the bitterness inside; a symbolic representation of human covetousness. The oysters are emptied of life and the rolled-up piece of paper is a scrap from an almanac signaling the passing of time. 


The pallet of Claesz’s painting is dark and limited. This was a common choice in Dutch master paintings of Vanitas. It creates a somber and brooding mood with which a singular light source mimics the singular reason for viewing a Vanitas painting; to remember one’s death.


Legacy of Vanitas

picasso black jug skull
Black Jug and Skull by Pablo Picasso, 1946, via Tate, London 


Vanitas painting lost its commercial popularity by the end of the Dutch Golden Age. However, the still-life painting of this era would have a large influence on artists to come. The meaning behind Vanitas lost its potency with the spirit of the combative reformation losing its momentum.


Vanitas subsisted during the seventeenth century to guide the mind to the contemplation of death and the vanities of living. Yet it was borne from a contradiction that the act of painting itself, creating a beautiful artifact, was vanity itself. Vanitas paintings became objects of earthly value, something it was trying to denounce. 


sunflowers van gogh
Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, 1888, via The National Gallery, London


What continued in its wake was it’s aesthetic and beauty. Coming to the close of the nineteenth century the still-life took up another ground of meaning. For Vincent van Gogh, the still life could represent something of wondrous beauty; a pure expression of feeling symbolized by an object.


For Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, still-life was a genre where one could experiment with aesthetics and interrogate the objects themselves by obscuring the point of view. It remains to this day an arrangement for artistic study and a mode for an artist to showcase their skill.

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By Fraser HibbittBA English LiteratureI received my BA in English literature. I enjoy reading and writing on literature, philosophy, cultural studies and art. I am a self-taught guitarist with an interest in music theory and composition. I have travelled widely having grown up in both the UK and Norway. Currently, I am based in Brighton, UK, where I finished my degree.