What is Vanitas artwork? Vanitas is closely tied to the older style of memento mori – which translates to “do not forget you shall die”- paintings meant to inspire spectators to reflect on their impermanence. In 15th-century Europe, memento mori began to emerge on the backs of portraits, frequently with skulls depicted inside a gap and coupled with an admonitory saying.

This phrase would advise the client that, while they may wish to have their beauty preserved, the best way to ensure their spirit’s survival in the hereafter is to live a good life.

In the 17th century, Vanitas artworks became fashionable amongst Dutch master painters. Famous Vanitas paintings were produced during a period of theological strife as a bastion for the Protestant goal of contemplating the self. Casting off their Catholic Spanish masters, the Dutch Republic had emerged as a triumphant protestant state, and Vanitas artists attempted to reflect this attitude via these Vanitas artworks.

The inclusion of the skull implies that even for the wealthiest individuals, there is no way to escape the inevitability of death and heavenly judgment. The chronometer, which is a timepiece, symbolizes how the passing of time brings us closer to death. Another interesting symbol is the addition of the shell, which was a rare collector’s item of the time. It was thought to symbolize earthly wealth and the futility that accompanied quests for these riches, and this is further demonstrated by the fabric, the books, and the instruments.

Each of the objects in the painting was carefully chosen so as to effectively communicate the Vanitas message, which was summarized in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. The message stated that viewers should caution placing too much importance on wealth, material objects, and the gratifications of life, as these objects could become barriers in the path to salvation.

Famous Vanitas paintings are subtle and rich in details. They are filled with Vanitas Symbols, which compels the observer to examine the imagery. We constantly see something fresh when we revisit Vanitas artwork. Nevertheless, what Vanitas artists essentially sought to express is a harsh reality. It is certain that we shall die, thus we should think about our goals and everyday routines. The meaning of Vanitas is to act as a reminder to us of the hopelessness of our earthly endeavors in the midst of our mortality.

Within this painting, Collier combined many classic Vanitas symbols such as the skull in the center of the artwork, the open pocket watch, books, a musical instrument, eyeglasses, and an hourglass. Through the inclusion of these elements, Collier communicated the message that life, in all of its glorious aspects, was essentially meaningless due to its ephemeral nature. Much like the sand in the hourglass, Collier demonstrated that people, music, and words will eventually wither away.

Despite incorporating elements of still life, Vanitas paintings differ greatly due to them being very symbolic. Artists did not create paintings in an attempt to display various objects or demonstrate their artistic skill, as both traits became evident the more the painting was considered and observed.

The paintings created during this time existed as a symbolic depiction of the uncertainty of the world and emphasized the idea that nothing can possibly persevere against decay and death. Thus, Vanitas artworks implored a severe message, as the aim was to preach the thoughts and ideas of the genre to its viewers.

In addition to being popular throughout its time, Vanitas has continued to influence some of the artworks that are currently seen in post-modern artistic society. Well-known artists who have experimented with the Vanitas style include Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, who made use of skulls within their artworks.

The term vanitas was Latin for “vanity”. It was thought that vanity encapsulated the idea behind Vanitas paintings, as they were created to remind individuals that their beauty and material possessions did not exclude them from their inescapable mortality.

Typical still-life paintings consisted of inanimate and ordinary objects, such as flowers, food, and vases, with the attention of the artwork being placed on these objects alone.

However, a Vanitas still life painting made use of these objects traditionally found in a still life in order to emphasize a completely different idea.

The Vanitas still life was said to teach viewers an important and moral lesson, as artists placed common vanities in contrast with an individual’s eventual death. This was done to initially appeal to viewers before humbling them with regards to how they treat others and the world once having fully considered and understood the work.


Numerous symbols were represented within Vanitas paintings, with the same type of motifs used for each category.

The motifs that were used to portray wealth included gold, purses, and jewellery, while those used to describe knowledge incorporated books, maps, and pens.

The motifs that were used to depict representations of pleasure took on the form of food, wine cups, and fabrics; and the symbols of death and decay were typically represented by skulls, candles, smoke, flowers, watches, and hourglasses.

The most important symbol that was ever-present within the numerous Vanitas paintings was the awareness of man’s mortality. No matter what other objects were included, the reference to mortality was always made clear. Most often, this was depicted through the inclusion of a skull, but other objects such as wilting flowers, burning candles, and soap bubbles achieved the same effect.

Symbols relating to the concept of time were also included, which were typically portrayed through using a watch or an hourglass. While decaying flowers may speak to death, they also imply the passing of time, allowing them to be used for both concepts. However, the concept that Vanitas paintings possibly evoke the most, in addition to mortality, is the harsh truth.

Within the Vanitas still life artworks that were made, the hopelessness of our mundane pursuits in the face of our mortal existence was explored.

Within this artwork, the viewer’s eye is guided to the various details by the subsequent light that is depicted. The overturned glass, which is completely empty, reflects a window and can also be seen in the reflection of the glass ball on the opposite side of the painting. It was thought to symbolize the briefness of worldly pleasures, which was further highlighted by the inclusion of an extinguished candle, a watch, and a skull.

This artwork, titled Allegory of Vanity, elegantly hints at the pointless quest for power, as demonstrated by the angel who is surrounded by exquisite goods. Next to her lies money and fine jewelry, yet the angel seems oblivious to this wealth. It is as if she understands the hidden meaning that the painting attempts to convey before the viewers are able to figure it out.

Despite the inevitability of death being depicted by the hourglass, the candlestick, and the skull, this painting does not directly communicate themes of morbidity and despondency to the viewer. This is possibly due to the fact that the angel seems aware of her transience within the natural world, as she knows that her presence will be eternal in her afterlife.

The pointlessness of power is again depicted by the angel who holds a cameo that portrays the King of Spain while pointing to the globe. This movement was said to refer to the futility of human endeavors such as the divide-and-conquer strategy, which was included in an attempt to warn individuals about the hopelessness in all of their actions so that they could stop them.

No seemingly obvious Vanitas symbols and objects are included. Instead, Claesz simply depicted objects of wealth, such as oysters, wine, and a silver tazza.

These objects, despite being known for their affluence, appear to be in complete disarray, as the dishes have been overturned and the food has been prematurely left. A subtle Vanitas motif is represented through the inclusion of a peeled lemon, revealing the bitterness inside, and is said to exist as a symbolic depiction of human greed. In addition to this, the oysters appear empty of both food and life and the rolled-up piece of paper is taken from a calendar. Both objects are said to depict the passing of time.

The color palette chosen by Claesz within this painting is both dark and limiting, which was a common choice in the majority of the Vanitas paintings of this time. These colors were mainly chosen due to their brooding properties and their ability to create a gloomy mood. The single light source that is included was done so in order to remind viewers about their own impending death.

Van Son addressed the Vanitas theme in an aesthetically beautiful style. Upon first glance, one is instantly captured by the beauty of this artwork, as depicted by the abundant array of flowers and fruits. The colors used within this painting add warmth, which make the roses, grapes, cherries, and peaches look even more exquisite than what they appear to be.

However, upon closer inspection, a skull, hourglass, and burning candle can be seen in the background. These Vanitas objects have been placed in the middle of the artwork and are subsequently laying idle in the shadows of the vibrant wreath of vitality and life.

A great contrast is created between the sensuous fruits, the blossoming flowers, and the dark and vague objects demonstrating temporality.

In addition to the decay of life that is depicted, the ripe fruit and colorful flowers appear to be at the point of bursting and invite viewers to touch them before their inevitable decay. The inclusion of two ideas forming around the central theme of decay depicts the spiritual significance that exists in this painting. While decay still refers to human life, it also frames and complements the Vanitas objects before either of them dies out. Thus, the brevity of human life and the ability of man to rise above death comes across as a strong theme.

paul cézanne still life

A vanitas painting highlights the transitory nature of the things or people that it portrays, in order to remind us of the brevity of life and bring us into greater harmony with the nature of reality. Everything is as brief as a single breath. Link to religion, and how many of these paintings were religious paintings.

Bubble – symbolise the temporary. Fun and play and the idea these things won’t last very long.



Louise Moillon (1610–1696) was a French still life painter in the Baroque era. It is recorded that she became known as one of the best still life painters of her time, as her work was purchased by King Charles I of England, as well as French nobility. Louise Moillon is also known for her Flemish style that is present in her artwork.

Plastic vanitas Mariele Neudecker