All Is Vanity? Methinks Not.

In the fist third of the seventeenth century, Judith Leyster painted The Last Drop. It shows two young men in the prime of life, drinking and smoking. Mentally edit their clothing, and they could easily be a pair of young men from today, drunk, laughing, letting off steam. They seem carefree and genuinely happy. Which is of course what makes the—ahem—hourglass-wielding skeleton standing between them so unsettling. The men don’t seem aware of the skeleton. Is it just there for our benefit? Is it a specter only visible to us?

Judith Leyster, The Last Drop, 1639

The painting is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of art, which explains, “This painting speculates on the consequences of . . . overindulgence. In their dissipated state, the gay cavalier and his companion ignore the menacing presence of the skeleton, which bears an ominous hourglass in one bony hand and a skull in the other.”

To my eye the skeleton seems to be mocking these young men. Its exaggeratedly jolly pose is so at odds with its true deathly meaning. Or maybe the skeleton is just carefully watching this man as he indulges in drink so as to better understand his folly. So as to make us, the viewers, better understand said folly?

Detail from Masaccio’s Holy Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, 1425–28

This macabre trope is by no means unique to this painting. Artists throughout history have addressed the inevitability of death. There is Masaccio’s Holy Trinity on the wall of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, which includes a skeleton in a trompe l’oeil burial niche, not so subtly bearing the words “I was once what you are, and what I am you will become.” There are innumerable Baroque-era vanitas still life paintings. Modern art obviously tackled death too, from Francis Bacon, whom the New York Times called “Artist of the Macabre,” to Audrey Flack who famously painted an updated version of a vanitas painting. A Google search on themes of death in art will lead you into an internet black hole from which you might never return.

Vanitas still life, by Harmen Steenwijck
Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas, 1640

And so. This week I will celebrate my birthday, which might be what has me revisiting these paintings. I feel a bit like the “gay cavalier” in The Last Drop. Except, unlike the oblivious man in the painting, I can see the menacing skeleton. I see those sands slipping through the hourglass and the candle being burned. This upcoming birthday is nothing special. I’m not turning a big, scary round number. And I know I’m still young. But! But I feel acutely aware of the progress of time. Of the way time seems to gather speed like a stone rolling down a hill.

Appropriately, NPR aired a piece on my thirtieth birthday called “Why Does Time Fly By As You Get Older?” One explanation for the seeming speeding up of time as we age is the fact that things are less novel as we age. New things are more complicated to process and accordingly affect our perception of time (i.e., complexity feels slower). Which, if you ask me, is an argument for new experiences. We should travel to altogether unfamiliar places. Maybe take classes on obscure things. Glass blowing this year, trapeze arts next year?

Since I have no outlandish vacations or classes coming up, I’m trying to instead view my awareness of time’s persistent march as a gift. To perceive the fleetingness of the moments of your life is, I think, to value them all the more. I look at my teeny sweet son and think of the changes to come. His continued growth and independence. The reminder of which makes me hold him even tighter when he hugs me.

On weekend mornings my husband often makes large breakfasts as I laze about on the couch. My son watches cartoons or colors or plays with his toys. I drink it all in, feeling impossibly lucky, even if (and because) I know that these moments are fleeting.

Detail from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government, 1338

One thought on “All Is Vanity? Methinks Not.

  1. Yes Ellen, moments are fleeting! So, you have at hand a treasure trove of stories from many places! I guess that’s why I too became a gay cavalier, paying no attention to the hourglass!

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