Vanitas: van Huysum, Ruysch, and Membreno-Canales

Describe in your own words the style of Dutch 17th and 18th Century still life painting. How does this painting style create a metaphor for mortality? Be specific and use as evidence things you can observe in the Rachel Ruysch painting Fruit and Insects, 1711 or the Jan van Huysum painting, Vase with Flowers, c. 1718-20.

Why and how does Hector Rene Membreno-Canales use the style of Dutch still life painting and the idea of Vanitas in his series Hegemony or Survival? Do you think the use of this style and the implied Vanitas metaphor for mortality is effective or heavy-handed? Please state clear reasons for your answer.

The Vanitas style of still life painting refers to the symbolic juxtaposition of life and death. At first glance, the paintings are simple representations of flowers and fruit. But as one examines them further, there is more than a whiff of the morbid about them. In Ruysch’s work, there is a fly on the fruit, as well as a moth (or butterfly?) and a salamander in the foreground, perhaps ready to attack the beautiful butterfly. This is meant to remind the viewer that even in life, death is always present. Life is transient.

Similarly, van Huysum depicts the life cycle. In the bottom right, there’s a nest with eggs. On the vase itself is a painting of a young boy. The flowers are in various stages of bloom: some are young and tightly closed, others are past their prime and are ready to fall apart. The eye travels all over the image and the cycle repeats again.

The photographer Membreno-Canales is clearly inspired by this style of painting. Like Ruysch and van Huysum, he uses a limited color palette and depicts lush flowers and fruit.However, instead of the subtle details found in the Vanitas paintings, his are blatant: a gas mask here, a machine gun there. While the images are certainly heavy-handed, I still think that they are successful. The images themselves are striking. By placing an emphasis on these tools of war, he’s shifting the focus from an abstract concept of life and death to an overtly political statement.


One thought on “Vanitas: van Huysum, Ruysch, and Membreno-Canales

  1. rmichals

    It certainly adds to the contrast between the still life objects and the weaponry that Membreno-Canales uses the style of Dutch still life painting. I personally find it heavy handed but the point he is making isn’t subtle. Luxury, comfort and art are made possible by violence. One could read this that these things are protected by force or that inequitable distribution of income can only exist by force depending on one’s politics.


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