05 May 2010

Vanitas and Memento Mori: The Ephemeral Nature of Life

Vanitas or “emptiness” was a form of funereal art popular in Northern Europe during the seventeenth century that dealt with the ephemeral nature of life. The still lifes featured skulls to remind the viewer of the certainty of death. Other motifs included bubbles, smoke, burning candles, and hourglasses to symbolize the finiteness of time. Cut flowers were also used to remind man that earthly pleasures are fleeting; just as the skin and flesh leave the skull so do the petals fall from the bloom. Memento mori, or “remember you must die” was a form of the genre that dates back to antiquity. These were more varied in style as in Dutch painter Frans Hals’ (1580 -1666) Youth with Skull. Philippe de Champaigne (1602 – 1674) was a Flemish born Frenchman who painted Vanitas showing a skull flanked by a cut tulip and an hourglass. Dutch artist Jacques de Gheyn the Elder (1565 -1629) painted the earliest known vanitas in which the scull gazes on useless coins and is haunted by a bubble containing grim images: a wheel of torture, a leper’s rattle and a flaming heart. A twentieth century interpretation of the subject can be seen in American abstract expressionist Walter Kuhlman’s (1918-2009) Memento mori.


  1. Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight, Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage,rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Dylan Thomas

  2. Fascinating as always Kendra -- and thank you for including Walter Kuhlman's masterpiece. Note in his work that "death" has no eyes, ears, mouth, arms....he can only stand next to "life," mutely, waiting. Yet they both are surrounded by the infinite ocean of life.

  3. Thank you Author and Amy for your thoughtful notes. Have a wonderful weekend.

  4. You can see more of Walter Kuhlman's compelling work on the website www.walterkuhlmanart.com.


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