Appel à communication : Vanitas. Reconsideration of a pictorial concept

Philippe de Champaigne, Vanitas, vers 1671, huile sur toile, 28 x 37 cm, Le Mans, musée Tessé.

Type : Appel à communication

Date limite de l’appel : 30 juin 2017

Date de l’événement : 24 – 26 mai 2018

Lieu : Belgique, Gand

Vanitas. Reconsideration of a pictorial concept

ANKK-sponsored Session

One of the most controversial pictorial concepts within the methodological debate of Netherlandish art history certainly was (and still is) the concept of the Vanitas of the mundane world. It has become quite common to view and subsume Dutch still life painting under the aspect of transience and to claim that those works include a moralizing message: The depicted objects – may it be the skull or hourglass, overturned glasses, wilted flowers, money, jewelry or instruments (used either in daily life or in art and science) – have been interpreted by art historical scholarship in rather generalizing terms as symbols of the vanity and impermanence of human life. Besides this rather cultural pessimistic interpretation there are additional readings of still life painting – for example a more sensualistic approach emphasizing the cognitive power of sense perception; or a social-historic position that links the genre to seventeenth-century European economic expansion by accentuating the importance of goods as a means to establish identity.

Thus, the question arises, whether the pictorial reference to the end of earthly existence in combination with a glorification of wealth – for example in sumptuous still lifes, – has a negative appeal, while on the other hand vanitas still lifes may request a more positive reflection: thinking about the inevitability of death here tends more towards an overcoming of earthly existence in order to gain eternal life. Recent scholarship suggests that vanitas still lifes require
beholders to engage in a more active contemplation – also in terms of a moral reflection about themselves. Thus they could be understood as private devotional images, serving as a reminder to the meditation on death and eternal life.

Vanitas vanitatum est: So is the sensuous world little more than smoke and mirrors?  Or does she have – on the contrary – an epistemic significance? Our panel would like to take up this discussion and reconsider the pictorial concept of vanitas. Oscillating between contempt of the world and an affirmation of life in the awareness of the inevitability of death, between an emphasis of sense perception and an emphasis of its relativity and temporality, between a glorification of wealth and criticism of the same, vanitas still lifes offer an ambiguous interpretative potential which needs to be explored anew for every painting. We would like to look into historical and cultural contexts and backgrounds in order to locate vanitas themes and motives and thoroughly understand their meaning. Therefore, we welcome papers which not only address classical vanitas still lifes but also its predecessors, like for example the depictions of skulls on the reverse of portraits or the various paintings of Saint Jerome in the 16th century. Furthermore, we are interested in the theological and philosophical textual sources, which occasionally even find their way into the paintings. And we also ask for papers that explore the historical development of particular motives, such as e.g. the homo bulla, or certain sub-genres, like e.g. the Merry Company. What characterizes a vanitas still life and distinguishes it from other forms of still life? And how and to what extend does the vanitas painting reflect on the status of the image and its potential to preserve that which is most ephemeral in paint and thus from the impermanence of life?

We invite scholars to submit abstracts in English of no more than 250 words and a short CV of max. 100 words to Karin Leonhard ( and Sandra Hindriks ( by June 30, 2017. If you submit a proposal to more than one session, you should notify the chairs in advance. Only papers that are unpublished will be considered. Speakers must be HNA and ANKK members at the time of the conference. The
conference language will be English.

Citer ce billet
Florence Fesneau (2017, 21 mai). Appel à communication : Vanitas. Reconsideration of a pictorial concept. Groupe de Recherche en Histoire de l'Art Moderne. Consulté le 27 février 2024, à l’adresse

Publié par

Florence Fesneau

Docteur en Histoire de l'art moderne (Université Paris I - Panthéon Sorbonne)

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