Contemporary Vanitas

A couple of weeks ago we had a visiting speaker at college, called Robyn Woolston, who said that what you throw away says a lot about you. I thought the things I throw away would make an interesting subject for my contemporary Vanitas image.

I chose a wicker wastepaper basket and pulled a few things out of it to see what it might say about me. Food wrappers, tablet foils, hair products, magazines, train tickets and more tells you about my lifestyle, where I’ve been, how healthy I am, what my interests are and what I value. Its a little worrying to think that someone can work out so much about me from the things I simply toss in the bin.

I planned to photograph them in the studio and make it look similar in style to a traditional Vanitas painting, using strong triangular shapes and trying to replicate window light, using one light from the side with another to light the background.

ContempVanitas1webI spent some time getting the composition how I wanted it. At first the big crisp packet dominated the image but looked much better when I folded it down and under the bin.

The first image was taken using the flash and looks fine. I’m happy with the way your eye is drawn in and around the image but as we had not used flash for the traditional version we did last week I tried this one without a flash too.

ContempVanitas2webAs suggested, the light is much softer and gives it a much gentler and more solemn tone. This is probably my preferred image.





For the third image I moved the light at the side to the back slightly and turned it to face towards the front a little. It gives the image a bit more texture but is far too dark for my liking.


This has given me an idea to create further images on this theme about people that I know.

Contemporary Vanitas Prep

My aim to take a traditional looking Vanitas image using things that I would usually throw away. So the props I will need are:

  • Wastepaper basket
  • Variety of clean waste / recycling
  • I won’t take a take a cloth as I want to use the surface of the table in the studio

I want to recreate natural soft window light on the display, looking as though it will be coming from one side. So I plan to set up the studio to look like this.


So I will need the following equipment:

  • Tripod
  • Light meter
  • Medium softbox
  • Barn doors
  • Honeycomb
  • I’ll use the black background that is already in the studio

I will be placing the camera to frame the items quite tightly on a small table and want to have everything in focus, so I expect to use an aperture of around F8.



Continuing with our Vanitas project, this week we were given some props and asked to create our own Vanitas photograph in the studio. Working in groups we arranged the items and added a few props of our own.

The headphones represent modern life, music, gadgets and youth culture; the money represents the pursuit of wealth and the skull reminds us that our life is short and finite.

Click on the photo to see a larger version
Click on the photo to see a larger version

We used a soft box to create soft lighting on the display table. The display table was set up a couple of feet in front of the backdrop so that we could light the background separately. We used barn doors on the light to create the rays of light.

After a couple of attempts to take the photo and fire the flash we chose to use a longer exposure with just the modelling lights. It has produced a softer effect and much more like one of the paintings we have been looking at.

We have caught a reflection of the softbox in the vase so next time we will need to adjust the position of that particular light to minimise reflections on any shiny objects.


Vanitas is a form of painting, that was particularly popular in The Netherlands in the 17th Century. Around this time there were terrible outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Europe and art reflected the mood of the time.

The word Vanitas comes from the latin word for vanity and literally means empty and frivolous. It aims to reflect the fleeting nature of human life, the inevitability of death and the meaninglessness of earthly achievements. It reflects the message in Ecclesiastes 12:8 ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ (NIV). Another word for meaningless in this context is ‘vapour’, which I think, gives a clearer understanding of what the writer is talking about.

Often still life, Vanitas paintings use objects like skulls, decaying flowers, candles (often snuffed out) and bubbles to remind the viewer of life’s transient nature and of death. These items are often referred to as memento mori, which, according to The National Gallery is latin for reminder of death. And then it uses books, globes, wine, goblets and musical instruments to represent human achievements and earthly pleasures.

Photo Credit: Ferens Art Gallery
Photo Credit: Ferens Art Gallery

I first came across this style of art in the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. It was in a painting by Gijsbrechts Cornelius called Vanitas that was painted in 1664.

I understand that Vanitas evolved from skulls that were painted onto the back of portraits during the Renaisance so it is quite apt that this oil painting is of a peeling canvas and has a small portrait in the corner.

In the image there is a skull and will as memento mori, a snuffed out candle and an hourglass that point to the passing of time; while the bubbles, violin bow and wine refer to superficial pleasures. The palette and brushes remind us that art itself is another superficial pleasure.

Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life

In Harmen Steenwyk’s 1640 painting entitled Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life the books symbolise the pursuit of learning and pleasing the mind, while the instruments refer to pleasing the senses. The sword and shell are both rare collectable items and reference the owners wealth. There is a chronometer, a lamp that has just gone out and a skull in the paining too, all are symbols of death and fading life.

Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait of the Artist by David Bailly, 1651, brings another take the Vanitas style of painting. It still has many ornaments that represent the transience of life including a skull, bubbles, roses, and items that symbolise the vanities of this life. However the self portrait of the artist is a little deceptive in that the artist in the image is forty years younger than he was when he painted it. The most life-like representation of the artist is actually in the portrait that he is holding. Perhaps the artist was thinking back to his younger life and what he as achieved in those forty years or maybe he is is anticipating that life is moving on and he has fewer years left to life.

A more subtle Vanitas painting is Willem Claesz Heda’s 1634 painting titled Still Life with a Gilt Cup. It is part of a range called Tonal Banquet Pieces that are cleverly painted in very subtle colours. The peeling lemon, the have finished meal and the knocked over goblets give a feeling that life has been suddenly abandoned in the midst of the meal. Although oysters were a poor man’s meal at the time the image was painted, the quality of the silverware indicates wealth but to what end? When life is over none of the items are any good to the owner.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533 is an earlier example of Vanitas. The painting shows the French Ambassador to England at the time, Jean de Dinteville and his friend Georges de Selve who was Bishop of Lavaur. There is various items in the painting referencing learning and knowledge including a globe, a celestial globe and portable sundial as well as musical instruments and books. The skull is hard to pick out and is painted right at the front at such an angle that you need to be standing to the right of the paining in order to see it clearly. It is said that the lute with a broken string represents the Ambassador’s brother who was a very good lute player but had died previously.

Some observers have said that the picture is also a metaphor for divisions between the church and state. I think this is quite possible as it was painted during the reformation of the Church of England, with Henry VIII being made head of the church just the following year.

For a contemporary example of Momento Mori perhaps the best well known is For the Love of God by Damien Hirst, 2007. It is a platinum skull set with human teeth and 8,106 flawless diamonds. Hirst says on his website “You don’t like it [death], so you disguise it or you decorate it to make it look like something bearable – to such an extent that it becomes something else.”

A more modern take on Vanitas is this image taken by Ward Yoshimoto for the book ‘The Nature of College’. The skull is still there, as is the globe. The books are now modern text books, wine has been replaced by beer and vodka and the vain things of college life are represented by a games console, laptop, American football and dvds.

 Justine Reyes has also created some good examples of more contemporary Vanitas. I don’t understand the link between all of the items she chooses to use but they are beautifully lit and arranged.

Shelf Life, James Hopkins

I particularly like the range of images that James Hopkins has produced called Shelf Life.

The shelves are cleverly lined with items to form the shape of a skull and filled with Vanitas items. In this image there are books representing knowledge, a globe to represent travel, a guitar representing music and boxes that once housed luxury items like computers and televisions.

Other images in the range use lamps, wine glasses, wine racks, disco lights, trays and much more.



Another more traditional painting in the Ferens Art Gallery that caught my eye is The Man with the Muck Rake by Sir Joseph Noel Paton. It was painted a bit later in 1872.

(c) Ferens Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Ferens Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This depicts a scene from Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress where a man is so focussed on the ‘vanities’ in front of him that he cannot or will not look up and take the crown that is offered to him. The man is utterly absorbed with the task of grasping at the bubbles as they float past dying flowers that he doesn’t notice the hand of Jesus on his shoulder. The memento mori items in the bottom left that make up the rubbish heap include a skull to remind us that death is near and is a stark contrast to the eternal life that Jesus is offering the man. The gems and golden crown remind us that chasing after ‘earthly treasures’ is pointless, like vapour, like the bubbles.

This painting really makes me wonder what are the ‘vanities’ in my life. What do I chase after that is so worthless and pointless?

In my own Vanitas image I think I would need to include some gadgets. I have an interest in gadgets but a particular interest in anything with an apple stamped on it. Of course, cameras should also be there too. I love to cook and eat so food should be there in some form or another and as I travel at any given opportunity, a globe or passport might need to be included too.