Vanity in 17th Century Dutch Art

Vanity in 17th century Dutch art is best expressed in the many still lifes. Many of the still lifes had the same symbols repeated over and over again and the Dutch are best known for this symbolism. Because of the protocols of expression in the 17th century, symbolism was used heavily in paintings. “Vanitas is a term derived from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, which starts: `Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' Vanitas paintings illustrated the transience of life and the vanity of human activity. They encouraged contemporary viewers to spurn sensual pleasure and set their sights on the hereafter. “

The objects of the 17th century Dutch still lifes continually symbolize the brevity of life and the wealth and luxury of worldly objects.

As seen in the many Dutch paintings, there is often over-ripe fruit, often a lemon or other citrus fruit, with symbolizes the sweet and sour of life but as well the transitory nature of life. Abundant flowers in the pieces also symbolize the fragile nature of life. Life will end too, like flowers and fruit. Skulls are predominant in 17th century Dutch art as well, again symbolizing our temporary existence here on earth. Snuffed candles and timepieces again are used to symbolize and remind us that our lives will end all too soon. We are reminded here of the cliché, “time flies.”

While vanitas paintings emphasized our mortality, they also accentuated the vanity in human activity. Abundance of food in a still life can be a symbol of luxury and wealth but at the same time has the double meaning of the vanitas. Food does not last forever, as does not life. Dutch still lifes with symbols of luxury and wealth are called pronk still lifes, after the Dutch verb, pronk, meaning to “show off.”

Other human activity is moralized in the still life. Oysters are displayed in still lifes, as they are an aphrodisiac and symbolizing sexual pleasures. Often, a knife with oysters in the still lifes has further sexual connotations. Other symbols of wealth and luxury are wine and the goblets from which it is consumed. Again they are used to show earthly pleasures.

The final analysis of the vanitas paintings combines and contrasts the two meanings explained here. These paintings are moralizing. First the transitory nature of life is depicted but then we are reminded that the earthly pleasures should not be important. The pronk symbols are reminders that earthly, material things are not important and the vanitas symbols give hope for an eternal afterlife. Vanitas paintings were thought to encourage viewers to disdain from the pleasures of earthly material things and to concentrate on an eternal afterlife. Their purpose was to communicate some worthy or transcendental moral.

Source: Ringling Museum Docent class 1999.