The Dangers of Vanity: The vanitas Image in Dutch Still-Life Painting
Purposeful and present, the very act of preparing a meal by carefully choosing ingredients, pouring in time and effort to turn raw into delicious, separates into a whole, is in itself soulful. Food continuously reminds us of the fleeting nature of life: when the vegetables soften, the fruit rots, the bread molds. Every time you choose to invest and enjoy, no matter how small or fleeting the moment, you’re sowing the most meaningful seeds of life. Through our meals prepared for families, to care for ourselves and share with friends, we cultivate connections that will remain long after we are gone. When we fill our lives with love, friendship and excellent food, we unwittingly heed the warnings of centuries- old still-life paintings.
The recent focus on aesthetics in Edible Columbus had me considering the connection between the history of art and food. The still-life genre is the one most historically associated with grandiose displays of food. With deceptively bland subjects, still lifes do not often attract the same attention as a painted battle scene, or lifelike sculpture of a goddess. Nevertheless, these images are often packed with symbolic messages. Apparently pristine, the bowl of fruit and vase of flowers quietly peeking out from their ornate frames, upon closer examination, might actually contain fruits with split skins, and flowers with withered petals.
Though a still snapshot, you can watch as plums and pears turn ripe and decay. Tulips, poppies and roses burst, drooping with their own weight. These paintings are a testament to the cycle of life—the subjects live and die in front of you.
Similar to the way a well-styled Instagram photo of toasted quinoa with a kale reduction brags of the photographer’s foodie acumen, the still life genre developed partly due to the desire of the rising middle class Dutch to show off personal wealth and the impressive global reach of their nation. In the Netherlands during the 1600s, still lifes gained massive popularity and sparked the development of the vanitas image.
Deeply religious, the Protestant Dutch sought to distance themselves from the Catholic Church, which they considered excessive, frivolous and corrupt. Vanitas refers to both the Latin word for emptiness and the biblical notion that all earthly pursuits and possessions are worthless, compared to the value of one’s soul. Yet, the Netherlands in the 17th century was one of the wealthiest countries in the world with shipping industries reaching from Brazil to the Philippines. A new Dutch Republic was born, and with it, personal wealth for a burgeoning middle class. Vanitas images extoled the glory of the Republic by boasting of Dutch prosperity through exotic and expensive trinkets and simultaneously reminded the viewer of one’s duty to the spiritual soul.
Warning their patrons of the soul-compromising dangers of vanity, wealth and excess, 17th century Dutch painters frequently included reminders of the swift passage of time in their works. Overturned, empty Venetian wine glasses paired with Peruvian silver pocket watches; lutes with snapped strings and history books with waterlogged pages. Empty drinking glasses, instruments in disarray, both might reference the eventual end of the party, when the wine is gone and the music fades away. Watches count down seconds, ticking away time. Books are shown torn and forgotten, much like how the achievements of this life will fade with time.
The message is clear: you might be able to afford oranges from the Mediterranean, porcelain from the East, sugar and tobacco from the New World, but there is no escaping death.
The Dutch no longer have a monopoly on world trade, and paintings have made way for other popular forms of visual entertainment. The days of still lifes showing off a household’s wealth have been replaced by a myriad of TV shows and lifestyle blogs. A bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers, meanwhile, are just as common in the 21st century as they were three centuries ago. Now, citrus is a staple, not a luxury; yet, humans continue to be tormented by the haunting reality of death.
A bowl of fruit—filled with a few oranges for breakfast, lemons for dinner, limes for drinks and peaches for a snack—still manages to find its place in modern homes. The fruit bowl is easily one of the most recognizable features of a well-stocked kitchen. At hand when a mother or father makes dinner for their family, the bowl is there to provide that final ingredient.
Though no longer the centerpiece of vanitas imagery, our collections of fruits, vegetables and flowers can still remind us to cultivate not only our material lives, but also our souls. The next time the zing of fresh orange juice hits your tongue consider its origins. When you run your fingers through a fragrant garden, remember to breathe. As you sit down to a fine meal, remember the lesson of the Dutch still life, and savor every morsel.