A Large c.1800 Oil on Canvas: An Allegorical Vanitas Composition Portrait of a Lady

Origin: French or Eastern European
Period: Late Eighteenth /Early Nineteenth Century
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1790-1820
Canvas: 41.5 inches x 27.5 inches
The Whole in Frame: 45.5 inches x 31.5 inches

The large and colourful allegorical depiction painted in oils on canvas, of a young and pretty lady reclining on clouds dressed in neo-classical clothing in scarlet and white, clad in period dress holding and being offered to a variety of vanitas symbols, symbolising the emptiness of earthly life, the whole presented in a later silvered frame survives from the zeniths of the eighteenth century.

The picture and frame are both in undeniably decorative, there is paint flaking and loss to the canvas which is relatively random but does nor detract, merely adds to, the pictures charm. There are no rips or tears and no signs of attempted restoration. The silvered frame is of good quality and is contemporary. The picture was found in France but there are clear Eastern influences in the picture.

A vanitas painting was a particular type of still life immensely popular in the Netherlands (and Paris, to a lesser extent), beginning in the 17th century. The Latin word means "vanity" and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. A vanitas painting, while possibly containing lovely objects, always included some reference to human mortality, most often a human skull, which we see in this example, but also by way of burning candles, soap bubbles or decaying flowers. It was meant not only to be a work of art, but also to carry an important moral message that the trivial pleasures of life are abruptly and permanently wiped out by death.

The pictures references to vanitas are large and varied and include scrolls with the Turkish chapter, a crown with scepter, pearls and jewels, a pocket watch, and urn and importantly, the skull. The depiction is heavily stylized, dreamy, whimsical and otherworldly, the bright sun appearing from behind a mass of cloud.

The scrolls to both sides of the painting list relevant passages from the bible, for example ‘Galata 5: 18: 19: 20: 21’ which is from the book of Gelations and refers to “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This is typical of the kind of message that paintings of this type wish to convey.

Wonderfully decorative and fantastically exotic, with good age, this deeply symbolic richly allegorical painting harbors much more than just Eastern promise.