I’ve always been intrigued by Vanitas paintings – that is, still life paintings that feature stark reminders of the inevitable outcome of life (death) juxtaposed amidst the more transitory or sensual pleasures of life (flowers, food, books, pipes, wine)
The Vanitas lecture may be the one thing that I was awake for in my 8 AM Dutch art history class (I kid, I kid – there’s still a lot of Vermeer and Rubens kicking around in my head). If you’re not familiar with Vanitas paintings, they feature symbols of death and mortality amidst the splendor and abundance of life. Sometimes this is a subtle nod, others are a bit more…..obvious. It’s a form of art that is so filled with symbolism that each one is its own unique puzzle. And the conceit of Vanitas is as relevant today as in the 17th century – where there is life and abundance and pleasure there is also waiting death and decay.
My husband, Louisville portrait photographer Ben Marcum, and I were inspired to create some Vanitas of our own earlier this year.
I mentioned he’s a fantastic photographer, right? That’s going to be super important because I am definitely not a photographer or a painter – and if this project was going to come into being, it needed someone who excelled at sculpting with light. While Ben and I have collaborated together on some portrait work for my custom wig business, we had never done anything in the realm of still life before, so it was a new project for us both.
It was decided that I would be in charge of figuring out the contents of the pieces, and of sourcing the props. Or, to put it more bluntly, Ben said “figure out what you want in it and get it, and I’ll figure out how to shoot it. Oh, and I get to keep the skull in my office afterward”. That seemed like a reasonable plan, so I started going research. And shopping for skulls.
Since we wanted to work from a pretty classic interpretation of Vanitas, we needed a full-sized replica of a human skull. Thankfully, the internet has everything, so I was able to purchase a wonderfully detailed skull, with excellent patina, from Etsy shop Dark Crop. Probably better not to ponder where all those Dutch masters got their skulls in a pre-Etsy time.
With the skull sourced, I only needed to figure out what kind of foliage and artifacts the pieces needed. Since it was late April, I decided to work off of the theme of spring. That meant early wild onions and other greens I sourced from our yard, and spring-ish flowers like roses and hydrangeas from our local favorite, Schultz’s Florist. I also decided to add eggs (I recommend hard-boiling them first) and eggshells for their Easter symbolism, and vegetables like asparagus and artichokes (not totally sure artichokes are spring, but I was too taken with them at the store not to include them).
As splendor is a major component of vanitas, I felt obligated to pick up a few fabulous pieces of silver – including an antique silver plate floral centerpiece holder and a silver egg cup. I wanted this particular piece to be fairly structured, with the flowers threatening to overtake their bowl, the way that the early spring’s tentative sprays quickly give way to frantic summer growth.
Since I knew absolutely nothing about using or arranging flowers, I bought a book. This was great because I needed some help and also, I like to buy books. This gorgeous and well-written book on painterly flower arrangements was a tremendous help, and I’ve used it frequently since. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in learning about flowers and floral arrangements.
In final preparation, I shopped our house, looking for objects we already have that could potentially be part of the compositions. Though I had a clear idea in my head of what I was aiming for with these pieces, I went ahead and packed up anything that I thought might have a role to play – better to have too many pieces than not enough!
On the morning of the shoot, we went first to the grocery for vegetables and then to the florist for fresh flowers. We loaded everything in, and I set to work arranging the flowers while Ben set up his studio lights.
The rest of the shoot is a bit of a blur. The entire process of setting up a still life and then looking at the camera results on screen (Ben shoots tethered, which is SO nice) meant I did a lot of rearranging and editing. The eggs and their shells were especially challenging to place, as it was easy for them to be dominated.
After a few hours of arranging, shooting, and rearranging, we had two “Spring” Vanitas pieces. Ben worked his magic editing them to enhance their painterly qualities and then sent them off to be printed. Once they arrived, we framed them and enjoy them in our dining room.
We plan to create further Vanitas pieces (after all, we need to get our money’s worth out of the skull!). I’m excited to see how the pieces will evolve as I become better at arrangement and composition, and of course, I’m sure I’ll have to buy some new “props” – for the sake of the art, of course!