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Skeletons in Art

“Vanitas,” Latin for “vanity,” is a style of painting containing symbols of mortality, but may also include symbols of vanity (such as mirrors and musical instruments), expressing the emptiness and worthless nature of worldly goods. According to art dealer Carlton Hobbs, Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz features the themes of death and mortality prominently in his painting and sculpture, including one of his most famous works, the painting “Two Young Girls” or “The Beautiful Rosine” (1847), seen in figure 1. In this work, a beautiful young nude stands face to face with a hanging skeleton. Its skull is labeled “La Belle Rosine.” Although there is no physical mirror present, the young woman is essentially staring death in the face; it is a confrontation between beauty and demise. While the original completed work hangs in the Wiertz Museum in Brussels, the present painting is almost certainly the artist’s prototype.

In this next painting we see a very interesting figure where the contrast between death and life could not be more explicit. The woman depicted is, in fact, split in half! On the right she is painted in the flesh, while on the left she is transformed into a rotting corpse, with worms and snakes wriggling about her bones. Behind the skeleton on the wall hangs a painting of wilting flowers in a vase, while on the right a billowing curtain and pilaster provide the backdrop for the sentient half of the woman.

Lastly, we have an engraving entitled “Life and Death Contrasted, or, An Essay on Woman." Once again, this picture is shows a woman halved: on the left, she is painted in elaborate aristocratic costume surrounded by her earthly pleasures, such as books and playing cards. On the right we see only her skeleton, with a skull and bones at the foot of an obelisk. The obelisk is covered in proverbs, bible verses and sermon excerpts decrying worldly pursuits and reminding us, and women in particular, that they should be wary of their mortal pursuits and strive toward heavenly salvation.

Make no bones about it, “life is too short-- enjoy it while it’s yours!”

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