Baroque and Beyond C. 1600–1850

Dutch and Flemish Painting

What is vanitas painting?

Vanitas paintings were popular in Dutch (and Spanish) still life painting during the seventeenth century. They are symbolic of beauty, material luxury, and the brevity of life. In Harmen Steenwyck’s 1640 An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, the artist depicts a tabletop covered with a jumble of trinkets and various objects illuminated by a powerful beam of light entering into the frame from the upper left. The items on the table include a skull, oil lamp, musical instruments, a watch, a sword, a seashell, and books. Luxury items such as the sword and the exotic shell represent wealth and material possessions, other items, such as the skull, oil lamp, and timepiece, serve as a memento mori, or a reminder of death. Other common symbols found in vanitas paintings include candles, flowers, exotic fruit, and hourglasses.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Art History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App