My fascination with Vanitas paintings the dutch masters who created the worlds first art collectors


Vanitas was primarily known as a popular Dutch art genre of the Baroque period c. 1585-1730 having its renaissance in the mid 17th C, when Dutch artists became focused on the theme of mortality using natural specimens such as flowers cut from the root and starting to whither and pieces of decaying fruit to express momento mori - a reminder of the inevitability of death in all things living. Moreover, ‘precious’ metals, and objects d’art were used to remind the audience of the meaninglessness of superficial existence. In the Dutch Golden Age, rabbits and the hare often signified voluptas carnis (lusts of the flesh), the fur of the animal allowed the artist to showcase his artistic ability to depict fine detail and difficult material. By the end of the 17th C., this subject evolved to the garner sub-genre of the hunting trophy still-life, featuring dead game and was set outdoors and often in the environment of a hunting lodge. In the history of art, floral still life works were known for their highly refined execution and in their subjects a symbolism was addressed to a cultivated audience. Artists often referred to botanical texts when composing ‘bouquets’, which typically combined flowers from different countries in one vase and at one moment of blooming. Ultimately, by playing upon and transforming the genre’s inherent symbollic themes.

the great leveller underwater vanitas still life
'The great leveller' dated 2010
underwater vanitas still life
chromogenic print

Vanitas for me is more relevant today than it was in the 1600’s, the dutch were indeed the first real consumer society for art. Indeed the baker himself a man of normal social standing was himself at the time the owner of several Vermeer’s. It is interesting to note mechanisation of its own form was used by vanitas painters of the time - the idea that an artist would sit in front of a banquet and paint what he saw was gone.  the dutch used tracing techniques one object, piece of fruit or animal was copied onto another scene and painted in variation to the one before. This is not the case with my work - everything exists in front of the lens each and every time - this is an absolute.

Cornelis de Heem - Vanitas Flower Still Life
Cornelis de Heem 'A Still Life of Flowers and Fruit arranged on a Stone Plinth in a Garden' dated cicra. 1685

A little bit of history to set the scene... vanitas, (from Latin vanitas, “vanity”), in art, a genre of still-life painting that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. Vanitas paintings are symbolic works of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. It would contain collections of man made and natural subjects that were symbolic in every way; It asks us to consider mortality and to repent. 

The vanitas evolved from skulls and other symbols of transience were frequently painted on the reverse sides of portraits during the late Renaissance. By 1620 Vanitas paintings had become a popular genre until its decline around 1750. It was originally founded around Leiden, in the United Provinces of the Netherlands, the seat of Calvinism, which emphasised humanity’s total depravity and advanced a rigid moral code, but there were signs of vanitas even earlier within the differing churches and monarchies of the world.

Lille Hemessen vanitas between circa 1535 and circa 154
Lille Hemessen vanitas between circa 1535 and circa 1542

Although a few vanitas pictures include figures, the vast majority are pure still lifes, containing certain standard elements: symbols of the arts and sciences, wealth and power, and earthly pleasures; death or transience, and flowers never more beautiful than at the moment they were cut from the plant and had begun their ultimate demise. 

'Perception' underwater analogue photographic still life in the genre of vanitas
Perception’ dated 2013. underwater analogue photographic Vanitas still life

This piece is a reflection on life and mortality, questioning my own and the artworks meaning in a society dominated by materialism. The quality and purity of the process are at the core of my work, attempting to engage with the most personal of realisations - brutal yet divine.

In vanitas works you can see objects were often tumbled together in disarray, suggesting the eventual overthrow of the achievements they all represent those of your life gatherings. Several of the greatest Dutch still-life painters, including David Bailly, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Willem Claesz Heda, Pieter Potter, and Harmen and Pieter van Steenwyck, can be seen as masters of the vanitas still life, and the influence of the genre can be seen in the iconography and technique of other contemporary painters, including Rembrandt through to many of todays artist dialogues, including my own.

The term originally comes from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ Vanitas works are closely related to memento mori still lifes that remind the viewer of the shortness and fragility of life. Memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’.

The reference to vanitas for me is not only a homage – it is a self-exploration.

A black water floating cemetery installed underground at the 'Red October' studio, Moscow in 2013

Loves Resurrection’ dated 2013. edition of X chromogenic print.


Emperors Truth’   chromogenic print 120 x 90 cms, museum 'snug' framed.


I hope you found this journal entry informative, please stay connected.

Join the mailing list..  Register
Telegram Channel..     
Instagram..                 AJHamilton.Artist
Twitter..                     DistilEnnui

Support on Patreon..   SustainableArt