“Art use of colour and tone, the texture,

“Art is not what you see, but what you make
others see.”1 A quote from French artist Edgar Degas sums up the importance and
power of the intention of all great art. Throughout my personal investigation I
have studied ‘An investigation into how emotion and atmosphere is portrayed
through art’. With a title like this it would be very easy to focus on emotive
portraits expressing, for example, fear or sadness. However, I enjoyed
exploring still life and how ‘symbolic’ objects can create a powerful atmosphere;
referring to Edgars quote, “one simple object can lead to a much greater
interpretation”. Part of my later work was based on the study of ‘Vanitas’ and
how a careful positioning of certain objects, use of light and a thoughtful
composition can create an atmospheric scene, perhaps inflicting emotions upon
the viewer.  Particularly throughout my
latest work, I have enjoyed looking at the deeper meaning behind artwork and
not painting ‘the obvious’. I have found that rather than portraiture being the
focus of the work, surrounding objects and symbolism has been more significant
for my personal investigation.


Vanitas, by definition, are “still-life
paintings of a 17th-century Dutch genre containing symbols of death or change
as a reminder of their inevitability.”2 Some paintings may reflect a positive mood upon the reader, a
feeling of peace or nostalgia; whereas others may cause unease and fear as they
reflect on the idea of the ending of someone’s life.


When looking at Vanitas artists and
predominantly focusing on the style of the paintings and the mood they inflict
upon the viewer; I have enjoyed working with modern and traditional artists in
order to find my preference. Within my practical investigation into Vanitas, I
have studied two artists; Pieter Claesz and Audrey Flack. Throughout this essay
I intend to further investigate the meaning behind Vanitas and produce a
comparison between paintings by the two artists; how they differ regarding
composition, lighting, their use of colour and tone, the texture, and the
functions of symbolism used. 


Flourishing in the Netherlands in the
early 17th century, specifically from around 1620 to 1650. Vanitas (Latin for
“vanity”) in art, is a
fascinating art genre of still life painting, rich in morbid symbolism.
The origins of the term date back to biblical aphorism, taken from the Book of
Ecclesiastes ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all
is vanity.’3 The Latin noun ‘Vanitias’ means “futility” meaning pointlessness
and uselessness, which explores the meaning of our meaningless life. This message
is portrayed through symbolic objects used in Vanitas paintings such as musical
instruments or wine to remind us specifically of the vanity (in the sense of
worthlessness) of worldly pleasures and goods.


A typical Vanitas painting will contain
collections of symbolic objects portraying the inevitability of death and the
transience of worldly achievements and pleasures.


Throughout the Age of Exploration, beginning in
the 15th century, Europeans explored America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. New
findings and discoveries in these lands led to a great interest in the natural
world. Many rich Europeans would collect exotic fruits, insects, shells and
flowers and display them in grand display cabinets. Artists studied in great
detail the physical qualities of these items and would paint them in a
realistic manner without any figures. These independent still-life paintings
were much more than a simple document of the natural world. The paintings,
known as Vanitas paintings contained much deeper messages. Each object within a
Vanitas painting held a strong significance and meaning. Fruit and flowers and
other objects remind viewers of the transience of life, that the beauty of
goods in our world was solely “on the surface” and what mattered most was
“behind the surface” – referring to God. Symbolic objects help to convey the
message that flowers rot, fruit wilts, life ends and that these paintings would
instruct viewers to look past the short lived life of worldly goods and
pleasures and plan for the promise of immortality and an afterlife. The message
also includes the “hope” that viewers will appreciate the natural world along
with doing good and form an enduring positive impact on the world.


Amongst the significance of the symbols within
Vanitas paintings there is a contradiction about the paintings themselves.
Vanitas paintings were most popular in countries with strict Protestant and
Catholic Christian views such as Holland and Spain. They were purchased by the
richer community who were aware and appreciated the wealth they had
accumulated. However the Vanitas genre had a built in contradiction of the irony
that the paintings were also valuable and collectible goods in their own right
and, as such, became ‘Vanitas’ objects themselves.


Observations of the earliest Vanitas paintings
show how they were somber with a sense of monochromatic composition. However
they contained great power with only a few objects, often books and a skull;
for example, the work of Pieter Claesz that I will go on to analyse. As the
century progressed, other symbolic objects were included. Artists increased
their use of lighting and the mood within the painting brightened, along with
the palette becoming more diversified. Artists began to experiment with the
composition and objects would be presented in a more cluttered manner,
suggesting the overthrow of the achievements they represent. Interestingly, the
later vanitias paintings became a form of an excuse for meticulous virtuosity
in the experimentation of a variety of textures and surfaces. However, the
quality of this genre has in no way declined, the symbolic message is still
prominent within many of the greatest Dutch still-life painters, such as Pieter


So far, within my personal investigation I have
experimented with different ways of lighting a Vanitas style painting, and how
that can dramatically change the emotions inflicted on the viewer. I found that
a dark room with a single candlelight surrounded by symbolic objects created a
cold, depressing, harsh and almost gothic mood, contradicting my own
preference. However, whilst I experimented, I discovered that with a slight
alteration and the use of natural light a more content mood can be created.
Chiaroscuro, (Italian: light-dark) is an oil painting technique, developed in
the Renaissance and adopted by many successful painters at this time. The
technique uses strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to model three-dimensional
forms. The technique is used in a number of Vanitas paintings to create a
dramatic effect.


Following this, the tonal values within a
Vanitas painting can be altered to express certain character and inflict
certain moods upon the viewer. Tone can be used to create a sense of depth or
distance within the painting, and to create a romantic or tranquil atmosphere.


Additionally, the visual element of colour has
one of the most powerful effects on our emotions. Colour can be used in
numerous different ways from creating a movement to being a symbol. Many
colours within Vanitas are used to create the illusion of form within a
painting, artists will add lighter and darker colour tones to an object to give
the natural effects of light and shade, particularly in the earlier Vanitas
paintings. Colour is often used as a language to describe emotions. Red can
have connotations of anger or sensuality. Green often depicts envy, whereas
sadness can be referred to as having ‘the blues’. Vanitas artists can
manipulate the colour used in their paintings to portray subtle messages to
their audience.


Texture in paintings defines the surface quality
of artwork, how rough or smooth the material is. Texture can be observed in two
ways, optically and physically. An artist can create the illusion of texture by
taking advantage of their skillful painting techniques. For example, in the
detail of specific Dutch still-life paintings there is prominent verisimilitude
in the objects in the painting. An artist will also take into account physical
texture of the painting, which can impact on both the physical and emotional
message inflicted on the viewer by the artist and their subject.


Through such composition Vanitas paintings have
the ability to portray powerful messages and create a mood and atmosphere. The
way in which objects are laid out in the picture can affect the viewers
interpretation of the painting. Objects spread out on a table can convey a
feeling of emptiness and lifelessness. Whereas objects piled on top of each
other can create a sense of disorder, chaos or excitement. Within Vanitas
paintings, artists use the visual element and behaviour of shape and line
within their composition to enhance the sense of depth to and to further
control your feelings in the composition of artwork. For example, squares and
rectangular shapes can portray a stable and controlled atmosphere, whereas thin
horizontal lines could express distance, delicacy and a more tranquil


Throughout my personal investigation, I studied
the work of Vanitas, still-life artist Pieter Claesz. Claesz was born in
Belgium in 1597 and died on 1st January 1660. After settling in Haarlem in
1617, Claesz joined the Guild of St. Luke and began his career as a painter. He
was a painter throughout the Ditch Golden Age, a time when the Dutch Republic
were amongst the most successful leading nations in European trade, science and
art. I was keen to study Claesz as he produced many of his pieces with an
extremely restrained palette, yet was continually admired for his skillful
painting and the way in which he arranged objects in a controlled composition.
His use of a restricted palette is something I have attempted to mirror
throughout my work, in order to tone down vibrant paintings so that they do not
come across too busy. In addition I was drawn to his carefully observed light
effects and the way in which he paints to enhance the illusion of reality. His
work represents the slightly earlier stages within the Vanities genre and how
his paintings were produced through a time of increased wealth in Europe and
peoples interest in worldly goods and pleasures. Although a large amount of his
career has not been documented, many of Claesz work are thought to be inspired
by the ‘meticulous laid table scenes of the Antwerp painters Clara Peeters (c.
1594–1657) and Osias Beert the Elder (Flemish, c. 1580 – 1624)’4.


In addition, throughout my chapter three of my
personal investigation, I studied the artist Audrey Flack. A more modern
American artist who was inspired by 17th century Vanitas paintings and has
recreated her own style from this genre. Through her immaculate still-life
drawings Flacks’s work pioneered the art genre of photorealism. I chose to
study this artist as it enabled me to experiment with a more modern
interpretation of Vanitas paintings and will provide a suitable comparison with
traditional Vanitas still-life artist Pieter Claesz.


Audrey Flack is an American painter and sculptor
born on 30th May 1931 in Washington Heights New York USA. Between 1948 to 1951
Flack studied art whilst at Copper Union in New York City. However she was then
recruited to Yale University by the German painter Josef Albers, who at the
time, was the chairman of that universities art department. Flack then
graduated there with a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1952. During her time
at university, Flack was influenced by abstract expressionist work, which can
be seen in her early work which is a post–World War II art movement in American
painting, developed in New York in the 1940s. In the late 1950s Flack moved
away form this abstract expressionist style as she felt it didn’t fit with the
work she wanted to produce, as it didn’t come across clearly to viewers. Flack
then moved towards photo-realism, becoming one of the first students within the
arts student league to use photographs as the foundations of their paintings.
Flack then began to excel in Vanitas paintings, combining sections of black and
white photographs along with detailed arrangements of a number of symbolic
objects. (such as fruits, cakes, strings of pearls, lipstick, tubes of paint
and glass bottles). Some of her most famous Photorealistic works were Wheel of
Fortune (Vanitas) (1977–1978) and Marilyn: Golden Girl (1978).


Analysing Pieter Claesz’s ‘Vanitas Still Life’
(1630) and Audrey Flack’s ‘Wheel of Fortune’ (1977-1978) calls for an
interesting comparison. Both artists use a careful composition, use of colour,
light and symbolic objects to create mood and atmosphere within their paintings
and inflict thought provoking emotions upon the viewer.


‘Vanitas Still Life’ was one of Pieter Claesz’s many
symbolic pieces. Painted in 1630, this painting is a perfect example of Claesz’s
restricted palette. One of the earliest dated still life by Claesz, this was
painted with oils, on a panel of wood and with dimensions height: 39.5 cm and width: 56 cm, a
tiny painting.

When studying Vanitas paintings, one of the most important factors
to address is the symbolic objects present in the piece and how they are
placed. In this painting, as with the majority of Vanitas works, a gentle
toned, yet ugly skull is present, a strong symbol representing death or transience. To the left of the centre, there is a golden time piece,
representing the fleeting nature of human existence. Placed underneath this,
evident from the texture, is a blue piece of silk, which could represent the
luxury goods Europeans enjoyed at this time. The glass tipped over on its side
can be seen to represent the way in which many things are turned in
immortalised directions; even the pile of books placed underneath the skull
look battered, which could be a way to display a sense of awareness that the
mundane work is not that important. Also, the oil lamp, placed on the left of
the table, represents the passing of time. The candle has just gone out at that
moment, a way of showing that time quickly runs out.


In comparison to this painting, one of Audrey
Flack’s most famous works ‘Wheel of Fortune (Vanitas)’ (1977-1978) is much a
more modern interpretation of a Vanitas painting. This painting was created
with oil paints over acrylic on canvas, a technique I will potentially adopt
for my final piece. This painting is of a much greater scale than Claesz’s
‘Vanitas Still-Life’ at 96×96 inches (243.84 x 243.84 cm).


Flack’s ‘Wheel of Fortune’ is a bold, elaborate
Vanitas painting, including many symbolic objects clustered together. As an
active feminist, many of her paintings are designed to inflict a feeling of
female empowerment on the viewer, as shown by the bold portrait of the woman in
the top left corner of this painting. Just like Claesz’s work, in this painting
there is an extremely realistic dominating skull, providing the common theme
within Vanitas of death and transience. Flack has continued to show the passing
of time with the hourglass, portraying the message of the brevity of life and
how time is running out. Flack has painted an extremely realistic candle, which
unlike Claesz’s work, is still alight. This could portray a more positive
message and mood upon the viewer as Flack is still identifying and symbolising
time, yet in a more positive way. ‘Wheel of Fortune’ comes across as a much
more indulgent painting, with many of the objects representing strong
connotations of beauty and vanity. The shiny, gold cased lipstick, glass beaded
jewellery and the powder puff, placed at the bottom left of the skull, all
portray the impression of having pride in appearance and present an indulgent
atmosphere. On the other hand, just how Claesz’s painting presented the
battered books as a message of the mundane work is not that important. This
painting could show the beauty and pride in appearance is not that important.  Two significant items, unique to Flacks work,
are a die and tarot card. These objects are used with the intention of putting
across her message that ‘fate’ plays a part in life. Whilst investigating the
meaning and purpose of these symbolic objects, it allowed me to create my own
interpretation of Vanitas style paintings and include relevant symbols for my


‘Vanitas Still-Life’ by Pieter Claesz struck me
as containing sombre earthy tones, his obvious use of a restricted palette
helps to portray a gloomy and perhaps dull mood and atmosphere upon the viewer.
With mostly brown and grey colours, the subtle blue toned cloth contrasts with
the overall tone of the painting, hinting subtle suggestions of indulgence
within the painting. When creating my own artist study interpretation of
Claesz’s work using the same restricted palette helped me to highlight the key
objects with the most significance. Although, I found that attempting to mirror
his restricted use of colour, made it challenging to produce more realistic
objects. Through Claesz’s use of colour, I found this painting to be quite
depressing, an interesting piece of work to study yet not particularly eye


On the other hand, when looking to compare these
two paintings, my initial interpretation of Flack’s ‘Wheel of Fortune’ was her
obvious use of many colours. Flack’s painting uses strong, vibrant colours to
portray a more exciting, uplifting mood. She takes the same meaning behind
Vanitas yet embellished on the more vibrant tones of life and it’s indulgences
and pleasures. She has used a notable amount of red throughout her paining,
although this is seen to have connotations of anger, I feel that it portrays
power and shows signs of rich indulgence, perhaps presenting a luxurious
atmosphere. When creating my final piece, I was inspired by Audrey Flack’s use
of vibrant colours to create an eye-catching piece. However when developing and
working on my painting I found the colours from my own composition began to
clash slightly. To amend this, I used a slightly more restricted palette,
inspired by Pieter Claesz, when painting the skull in my painting. This allowed
for warm, orange tones in the foreground flowers, contrasting with a grey, cool
toned skull behind.


Following on from this, Claesz uses the
chiaroscuro effect (the treatment of light and shade in a painting)5 to create a dramatic mood and giving more of an emphasis on the
careful composition of the painting. “The wisp of smoke in the lamp and the
reflections in the glass are signs of fleeting existence common in Dutch
paintings.”6 from an article I read which describes the way Claesz uses lighting
to produce a more powerful painting. Throughout my project, I took photos
experimenting with similar lighting techniques to Claesz, by setting up my
composition of objects in a dark room and using only one light source (candle
light). I found this a challenge to capture the contrast in the photo, I also
found the picture too dull for my own preference, so decided not to develop it
for my final piece.


Flack’s use of lighting was much more appealing
to me within my development, I experimented with a brighter room and more
colourful objects and I much preferred the compositions and use of lighting. In
addition to this, through experimenting with compositions I found Flack’s style
more useful towards my final piece.


Claesz’s ‘Vanitas Still-Life’ is a landscape
painting, with minimal items carefully positioned on the table, the objects are
placed carelessly with the glass tipped over. The table is positioned slightly
to the bottom right of the piece, with a large proportion of the painting just
as a grey toned background. This feeling of space can present an eery, daunting
atmosphere towards the viewer.


In comparison, Flack’s ‘Wheel of Fortune
(Vanitas)’ consists of many more objects overlapping, conveying higher levels
of indulgence. The painting is on a square canvas and captures the objects much
more closely, with barely any background at all. I felt this added a powerful
atmosphere within the painting and interpreted this idea for my final piece.


Overall, I found that Pieter Claesz’s ‘Vanitas
Still-Life’ speaks of great power, through his restrained, yet lively brush
strokes, sombre earthy tones, careful composition and use of symbolic objects.
Particularly at the time, this painting carried a great deal of wealth as it
was a time when the Dutch Republic were extremely rich. This could have been
interpreted as a form of showing off to other European countries and portrayed
a feeling of jealousy onto less fortunate Europeans who viewed paintings of
this kind. I found Claesz’s work extremely beneficial towards my project as it
allowed me to ponder upon the subtle messages behind vanitas and helped me to
understand a greater meaning of what Vanitas is. One critic of Claesz suggests
that rather than subtly portraying a moral message, “in the type of picture
known as the ”vanitas,” at which Claesz excelled, it was baldly stated”7 implying that through Claesz’s use of dull colours and particular
choice of objects created the atmosphere and feeling of brevity of life almost


I found that comparing Claesz’s work to Audrey
Flack gave me a much greater understanding as to where my preferences lay.
Flack’s use of vibrant colours to create powerful, bold paintings has greatly
inspired my development and my final piece. “These paintings are often out of
life scale, varying from over life-size to under life-size, from brilliant,
heightened color to pale, undertone hues.”8 a quote by Audrey Flack herself which inspired me when choosing
compositions for my final piece and decided on producing a skull larger than
life scale, concentrating on shadows and vibrant colour, hoping to mimmic the
powerful mood portrayed in her paintings.


I have thoroughly enjoyed my investigation into
Vanitas and the comparison between the two artists, whose paintings are so
different, yet reflect similar intentions. I wanted to compare a traditional
Vanitas artist (Pieter Claesz) with an artist who was inspired by the Vanitas
style of art and modernised it in their own way (Audrey Flack) and I feel that
these two artists provided me with the perfect comparison. 





















1 Edgar Degas

English Oxford
Dictionaries – Definition of ‘Vanitas’

3 Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible
– Tate Modern

Gallery of Art – Claesz, Pieter.

English Oxford
Dictionaries – Chiaroscuro

Museum of Art – Article

The New York
Times – HOLLAND COTTER – September 2005

Audrey Flack –


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