Analysis of an Artwork: Vanitas by Jean de Valdes Leal

Published: 2021-07-07 17:50:04
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Introduction There are many works of art that focus on the materialistic aspect of mankind, as well as life and death. However, few works merge these themes together seamlessly into one, in a way that makes sense and seems effortless. Vanitas by Juan de Valdes Leal (Getlein, 15) is a work that achieves the combination of the materialistic theme with the theme of life and death. Leal is able to illustrate elements concerning both the fleeting moment of life along with the subsequent uselessness of materialistic possessions within one’s lifetime. Vanitas is an oil painting composed by Juan de Valdes Leal, in 1660.
The work currently resides in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Formal Analysis of Artwork Vanitas offers two conceptually unified themes. One theme is the combination of materialistic objects and the things that mankind seeks after to ‘complete their life’. The second theme suggests the passage of time. The unity of the materialistic theme is accomplished through the grouping of materialistic objects such as wealth, knowledge, and power through such items as collection of wealth, books to impart knowledge, and crowns and scepter showing authority.
While, the illustration of passing time is signified by the pocket watch, sundial, a diagram of the passing of seasons, and a skull, which represents death. The work is unified by the use of an earth tone color palate; in shades of red, black, beige, and ochre. Due to this color palate, there is an antique feel to the work. This theme is further suggested by the collection of some things that seem like artifacts, such as the candlestick, a globe, crowns and scepter, as well as the painting of The Last Judgment partially hidden behind the curtain.
Our eyes are directed through this work in two ways, the first, and most obvious, is the use of color and light. Our eyes are drawn to begin in the lower right of the work. First we see the coins, candlestick, and jewels; then our eyes are pulled along to the left and upward in the painting by the lightness of the flowers and books, on to the globe, things of the earth and knowledge. Finally we are drawn up to the painting of The Last Judgment and the suggestion of moving toward heaven.
Another way we are guided through this work is through the use of lines. I found that the lines in this work were more implied lines, a specific example would be the man standing in the background pointing. The hand he is gesturing to the painting with is blurred. The blurred line of his pointing arm appears a suggested line, but the hand he is holding the curtain back with is focused and appears to be pointing up to the heavens. This further solidifies the theory that we are being drawn up to the heavens.
The colors that are used to draw our eyes through the painting give us the impression of light, otherwise known as illusionistic light. This technique of creating the impression of light is done with the utilization of lighter colors. In this particular painting the base is light and you are drawn up into the darkness of the top of the painting. Another principle of design found in Vanitas is asymmetrical balance. There is balance at the bottom of the work between light and dark.
However, as you travel to the top of the work the large, visually heavy painting on the left side is in stark contrast to the empty space on the right side. This is due to the texture in the form of the painting on the left side as compared to the simple man and dark space behind him on the right side. We are also faced with the visual weight of the work. When the visual weight of a work is seen as distributed throughout with balance, then we understand the work to be visually balanced.
This work seems bottom heavy because there is more light and texture at the bottom of the painting, than throughout the top portion of the work. This might be off putting, but the introduction of bigger blocks of color in the top, and the visually heavy feeling of the darkness, lends to a feeling of the opposition between the foreground and background. This is an element that lends a feeling of balance front to back, as opposed to top to bottom. It feels visually balanced as far as working with scale and proportion.
Another view of scale and proportion can be seen in the way that Leal uses hierarchical scale to illustrate how the things of the earth are less important than what happens in the afterlife. He does this by showing all the possessions one desires of the world such as money, power, and knowledge. As you take in the materialistic things of the world, you are then led up to the top portion of the work where we are shown religious concepts such as the Last Judgment.
Overall, I felt this work was engaging in its subject matter, interesting in the depiction of themes, and visually pleasing through its color palate use. The elements of light and dark, as well as color and balance work, together well to make this painting flow in its presentation of the themes at hand. Through the use of these principles Leal was able to tie in the themes of life and death with the theme of the pursuit of materialistic rewards, and how they should be counterbalanced against higher thinking and religious principles.

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