Great Paintings: Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper

Vanity
Source: The Royal Academy

Beauty is one of the primary accomplishments of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Although Pre-Raphaelite art had a serious, philosophical bent, it was also an aesthetic movement. Painters who produced Pre-Raphaelite art strove to reproduce reality but often did so in a romanticized way, heightening beauty and removing undesirable aspects of real life.

Vanity -perhaps one of the most recognizable paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite period-is an excellent example of this commitment to beauty. Put simply, the painting is gorgeous. It is a visual feast for the eye, rich in vivid color and lavish details.

Vanity
Source: The Royal Academy

The subject itself is allegorical in nature. The piece depicts a young woman dressed in an ornate gown. Ropes of pearls dangle around her neck and a mirror glints in her hand, a symbol of vanity. The idea of depicting vanity dates to the Medieval period in Western art; however, it really came into its own during the Renaissance. During that time, it became commonplace to paint the concept of vanity as an allegory. Vanitas paintings were equally popular; they tended to depict the pleasures of human life along with a reminder (usually a skull) of human mortality. The underlying message of these paintings is the fragility and emptiness of vanity.

Frank Cadogan Cowper borrows Renaissance imagery for his image of vanity. As I mentioned before, the mirror that the woman holds is a traditional symbol of vanity. The grapes that hang in the background also suggest debauchery and pleasure.

While these Renaissance symbols contribute to paintings that are critical and moralizing, Cowper’s approach to the subject is much more neutral. His painting presents the fact of human vanity without fanfare of judgement; rather, the piece simply explores an aspect of human nature.

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on June 23, 2020.

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