vanitas - Latin for vanity, refers to a type of still life consisting of a collection of objects that symbolize death — the brevity of human life and the transience of earthly pleasures and achievements (e.g., a human skull, a mirror, and broken pottery).
Such paintings were particularly popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in the Netherlands.
France, Troyes, Dance of Death, 16th century, incunabulum, illustrated with hand-colored woodcuts, Saxon State Library, Dresden, Germany. Based on a 14th century morality poem by an unidentifiable author, the Dance of Death evolved into a set of illustrated verses depicting a dialogue between Death and people of all social ranks. The theme was very popular in 15th and 16th century Christian Europe, reminding the living that rank and station in life were meaningless in the face of death. The illustrations show representations of ecclesiastical and secular society being carried off by Death. The pages displayed here show the Pope, the Emperor, a cardinal, and a king.
Jacques de Gheyn the Elder (Dutch, 1565-1629), Vanitas Still Life, 1603, oil on wood panel, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 inches (82.6 x 54 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. See Dutch art and niche.
Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1597/98 - 1660), Vanitas Still Life with the Spinario, 1628, oil on wood panel, 70.5 x 80.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands. See ontbijt (breakfast piece).
Willem van Aelst (Dutch, 1627-after 1682), Vanitas Flower Still Life, c. 1656, oil on canvas, 22 x 18 1/4 inches (55.9 x 46.4 cm), North Carolina Art Museum, Raleigh.
Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906), Still Life with Skull (Nature morte au crane), 1895-1900, oil on canvas, 21 3/8 x 25 5/8 inches (54.3 x 65 cm), Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. Also see Post-Impressionism.
Paul Cézanne, Pyramid of Skulls, c. 1901, oil on canvas, 14 5/8 x 17 7/8 inches (37 x 45.5 cm), private collection, Venturi no. 753.
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890), Skull with Burning Cigarette, Winter 1886/1887 (Antwerp), oil on canvas, 32.5 x 24 cm, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, F 212. See Post-Impressionism.
Also see flattery and posterity.