Time

CHAPTER 2: Fleeting Time

Vanitas, a Latin word for emptiness, refers to a type of painting that captures the effect of fleeting time. It derives from a passage in Ecclesiastes in the Bible: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! (Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas!)” To remind the viewer that beauty, wealth, and worldly pleasures demise with time, artists represented flowers and delicacies that are on the verge of decay. Allegories—combinations of symbols and personifications—also communicate through visual riddles the fragility of human life in the face of time.

A Roemer with Grapes, a Pewter Plate, and a Roll

Abraham van Beyeren
The Hague, The Netherlands, 1620 - 1690, Overschie, The Netherlands

A Roemer with Grapes, a Pewter Plate, and a Roll
Oil on wood panel
92.7 cm x 79.4 cm (36 1/2 in. x 31 1/4 in.)
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1984
1984.56

Still-life painting became popular in Europe in the seventeenth century. Lacking the traditional patronage of Church and court, Dutch artists excelled at these banquet table scenes. They were especially popular among the growing merchant class who were interested in commercial goods. These paintings also served as reminders of the transient nature of life. Here, the artist shows plates precariously set near the edge of the table on a rumpled tablecloth and a knife with its handle jutting out towards the spectator, which suggests a sudden departure of people from the scene. The pocket watch with a winding key on a ribbon further emphasizes the effect of fleeting time.

Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase

Bartolomé Pérez
Madrid, Spain, 1634 - 1693, Madrid, Spain

Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase
Oil
92.1 cm x 74.9 cm (36 1/4 in. x 29 1/2 in.)
Bequest of Jack G. Taylor, 1991
1991.106

Flower painting in Europe has been closely associated with the "vanitas" theme because of the ephemeral nature and the beauty of its subject matter. Delicate flowers in full bloom, droplets of dew that will disappear with sunrise, and bowed stems soon to wilt symbolize the brevity of human life. In this painting, the glass vase adds to the sense of fragility. Bartolomé Pérez was one of the most celebrated flower painters in Spain in his time. Notice how his use of bold colors and brushstrokes enliven every petal and stem of the flowers.

An Allegory with Venus and Time

Domenico Piola
Genoa, Italy, 1627 - 1703, Genoa, Italy

An Allegory with Venus and Time
Oil
154.1 cm x 113.6 cm (60 11/16 in. x 44 3/4 in.)
The Suida-Manning Collection, 2017
2017.1306

In this allegory, Time, with his hourglass, presents Venus, the goddess of love, with a mature rose, as if to remind her that earthly love is as fleeting as a rose’s bloom. In response, Venus reveals her higher identity as a symbol of enduring spiritual love and divine beauty, a concept that evolved from the rediscovery of the writings of Plato and other ancient philosophers during the Renaissance. Venus here has already disarmed her son Cupid, the god of erotic love, by breaking his bow’s string. He is now unable to enflame uncontrollable desires in people and gods by shooting arrows into them. Domenico Piola, the leading artist in Genoa in the second half of the seventeenth century, painted many ceiling frescoes for churches and palaces. Paintings predating 1684 like this one are especially rare, since French naval bombardments in May of that year destroyed most of Genoa, including Piola’s house and studio.

Image credit:
Abraham van Beyeren
A Roemer with Grapes, a Pewter Plate, and a Roll, 17th century (detail)
Oil on wood panel
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1984

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