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Vanitas Still Life Painting

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Vicky Leighton

on 5 May 2014

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Transcript of Vanitas Still Life Painting

Vanitas Still Life Painting
Each object in the picture has a different symbolic meaning that contributes to the overall message:
The Skull

The skull, which is the focal point of the work, is the universal symbol of death. The chronometer (the timepiece that resembles a pocket watch) and the gold oil lamp which has just been extinguished, mark the length and passing of life.

Books and Musical Instruments:
The books represent the range of human knowledge, while the musical instruments suggest the pleasures of the senses. Both are seen as luxuries and indulgences of this life.

The Stoneware Jar
The stoneware jar at the right hand edge of the picture probably contained water or oil; both are symbolic elements that sustain life.

The Silk and The Sword
The purple silk cloth is an example of physical luxury. Silk is the finest of all materials, while purple was the most expensive colour dye.
As a symbol, the Japanese Samurai sword works on two levels. It represents both military power and superior craftsmanship. These razor edged swords, which were handcrafted to perfection by skilled artisans, were both beautiful and deadly weapons.

In Summary...
Let's examine one example of a Vanitas painting in detail...
Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life
', 1640
(oil on oak panel)

The composition of the work also amplifies the still life's symbolic meaning. In this illustration you can see how Harmen Steenwyck has used the diagonals of the painting to construct its arrangement. The objects which represent the 'Vanities of Human Life' fill the lower half of the work which is split by a diagonal.
Steenwyck employs a very impressive painting technique to give the still life a vivid sense of realism. By building up the picture with thin glazes of oil paint he manages to realistically convey the wide range of textures that the individual objects possess: the iridescence of the shell, the translucence of bone, the softness of leather, the smoothness of silk, the reflections of metal, the coldness of stoneware, the roughness of rope and a variety of wood surfaces that range from a gloss varnish to a dull matt.
The Shell

The shell (Turbinidae), which is a highly polished specimen usually found in south east Asia, is a symbol of wealth, as only a rich collector would own such a rare object from a distant land. Shells are also traditionally used in art as symbols of birth and fertility.

Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life
' by Harmen Steenwyck is a classic example of a Dutch 'Vanitas' painting. It is essentially a religious work in the guise of a still life.

The objects in this painting have been chosen carefully to communicate the 'Vanitas' message which is summarized in the Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21: “
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The Symbolic Composition

• Harmen Steenwyck was a Dutch 'Vanitas' still life painter.

• 'Vanitas' paintings were warnings that you should not be concerned about the wealth and possessions you accumulate in this world as you can't take them with you when you die.

• Vanitas still lifes depicted objects that had a symbolic meaning: a skull as a symbol of death, a shell as a symbol of birth or books to represent knowledge.

• Harmen Steenwyck painted his images with incredible realism and astonishing skill. This realism is meant to enhance the truth of the 'Vanitas' message.

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