Vanitas

April 27, 2020

I decided to try another “re-creating art” project. (If you haven’t read about the “Getty Museum Challenge,” here is one of several articles including a number of examples of what people have done.) I had previously not wanted to do a still life, because the primary challenge seemed to be finding enough fresh fruit. But as I looked through some more paintings today at various museum websites, I noticed a few paintings that featured violins, and thought I could make use of the violin that has sat in my front hall closet for years. (I did get it out a few years ago and attempted to tune it, but only succeeded in breaking a string.) The paintings that include people looked too difficult for me to recreate, but then I found some still lifes.

I had always thought about still lifes primarily as exercises in painting colors and contours, but I learned today how much symbolism is involved in many of them. This post, which includes the painting I chose for this project, explains what a number of common objects in still lifes represent. This made the project much more interesting to me, as well as a challenge to find the various objects needed.

The painting I decided on is by Pieter Claesz and is titled “Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball.” (Actually I’ve seen a few variations in the wording of the title, at the various websites where I’ve seen it, but this seems to be the most common.) Aside from the fact that it includes a violin, along with other objects I thought I could find, I just like the painting itself, as well as the symbolism expressed.

Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball by Pieter Claesz

According to what I have read, the skull, not surprisingly, represents human mortality. This genre of painting is called “vanitas” and was intended to remind the viewer of the transience of human life. The pocket watch (lower left) suggests the passing of time (and the need to use it wisely). The overturned glass, similarly, alludes to the brevity of the pleasures of life, now drained out. The glass ball also may be intended to suggest the fragility of life, as it could be so easily broken (it also resembles a soap bubble, even more ephemeral).

The violin, from what I have read, represents the luxury of the arts, something only the wealthy could afford, a pleasure which, like everything else, was transient. Music, of course, is very transient, only lasting in the memory once it has been played. (Recordings were of course wholly unknown at the time this was painted.) The books and papers, and the writing implements (the feather is a quill pen and rests on an inkwell) that go along with them, represent human knowledge and its temporary nature. (Though personally I think books and writing also symbolize the lasting nature of knowledge which can be passed on to future generations.)

The cracked walnut (near the overturned glass) is also noted as a reminder of death, I suppose because it has been cracked open. I haven’t found anything about the symbolism of the key (at least I think that’s what is hanging from the blue ribbon next to the pocket watch), but no doubt it goes along with the rest of the symbolic objects. The black shape behind it is apparently a pen case, for the quill pen. I think the item right behind the violin is some kind of lamp or candle holder, which would also represent the transience of life because it is not currently giving light.

I thought of titling this post “The usefulness of useless things,” because most of the objects I used to recreate the scene are ones that have been lying around the house unused for so long (though no others as long as the violin). The skull was from Halloween decorations when my sons were younger. The watch I used is one I got after ten years working for a company in Pennsylvania, where I used to live, but stopped wearing when my wrist started getting irritated by the metal (despite it being a good-quality watch). The Parker box holds a nice pen which somehow got buried in stuff and never used (but still works fine even after so many years and is now sitting on my desk). My substitute for the glass ball is actually a candle holder (so it also substitutes for the lamp/candle holder), which I had not used in years (and had to pry out the remains of a very old candle from the center). And the key? It appears to go to a padlock but I have no idea whether it’s one I still own.

Vanitas with violin and other stuff

The books, of course, are far from unused, both being books I read in the past two weeks. The pen is one I use every day (it is not the Parker pen, which was still in the box at the time I took the picture). I had no walnuts on hand, but I do have pecans, and I enjoyed eating this one once I was done taking the picture.

The most difficult aspect of arranging the scene turned out to be balancing the violin and bow. I have no idea how Claesz managed it (I assume he did actually arrange all these objects in his studio). I finally managed it, but not in quite the same arrangement. Naturally I could not hope for the ingenious self-portrait that Claesz achieved with the reflection in the glass ball, but there is some kind of reflection on the glass “ball” in my photograph, and why knows? Maybe there actually is some small bit of me reflected in it.


Books: Me Before You

July 30, 2016

Me Before You is the sort of book I would never have picked up on my own. Even knowing it would be the subject for discussion at our monthly book club meeting on Monday, I put off starting it until two days ago. Something about the cover photo of a beautiful young woman and a handsome man staring into each other’s faces just put me off somehow. And that title – sounds like some character is obviously self-absorbed though I didn’t know who it would be.

Note: it’s pretty hard to say much more about the book without giving some hint of the ending, so if you haven’t read it and want to read without knowing what will happen, stop here.

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Books: A Song I Knew by Heart

February 14, 2016

An online friend told me about this modern adaptation of the story of Ruth and Naomi. A Song I Knew by Heart by Bret Lott explores Naomi’s grief after losing first her husband Eli, then her son Mahlon. When she decides to move from Massachusetts back to South Carolina where she had lived as a child, her daughter-in-law Ruth insists on going with her.

Unlike the story in the Old Testament, there is no other son and no Orpah who agrees to go back to her family. Ruth has no family to go back to, so going with Naomi is staying with the little family she does have – and acquiring a large new family when they get to South Carolina.

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Books: Mistress of the Art of Death

May 14, 2015

The title of the audiobook, Mistress of the Art of Death, didn’t particularly appeal to me – it sounded like it might be one of those vampire novels so strangely popular these days. But then I picked up a different title by Ariana Franklin, a historical fiction novel which looked interesting. When I saw that it was a follow-up to Mistress of the Art of Death, of course I had to check that one out first.

Adelia Aguilar is a forensics pathologist, but she has few of the resources available to Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, for the simple reason that she lives in the twelfth century. Trained at the medical school in Salerno, she is sent with a (Jewish) investigator to find out who is murdering children in Cambridge, England, both to put an end to the heinous killings and to absolve the Jews who have been accused of ritual murder.

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Books: The Sandcastle Girls

April 17, 2015

The Sandcastle Girls was our book club’s selection last month, but I found it difficult, immediately after reading it, to figure out what to say about it. There is so much I could say about the awful tragedy recounted in the book, both at a personal level for characters in the book and for the millions of people affected by the genocide of the Armenian people.

Then again, what is there I could say that would really do justice to the subject? Chris Bohjalian does it far better, bringing to life an ugly chapter of history that has been largely forgotten by most of the world. The stark reality of human suffering is depicted in more grim detail than I might have liked, but the fact that people do such horrible things to one another is reason to tell them, not to ignore them.

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Books: Doomsday Book

December 29, 2014

I was trying to think of something to get my younger son for Christmas. I remembered that he had enjoyed some books about time travel, but rather than another book in a series we’ve already read (from the library), I decided to look for another author neither of us had read before. One of my first hits in Google was Connie Willis.

I’m not sure which book I looked at initially, but from the description I discovered that it was not the first novel in which Willis had historians of the future going back in time to study their subject first-hand. So I looked through the list of books mentioned, and decided to start with Doomsday Book, which fortunately was available through the library.

If I liked it, I’d invite my son to read it. Then if he liked it I’d consider buying some of her books. With Christmas coming up so soon, I had to find something else to get him (how’s this for someone who particularly likes both science and superheroes?). But having discovered Willis, I was eager to read her books just because I like time travel books so much myself.

I was already in the middle of a historical fiction novel I’m reading for the book club, but it was slow going so I set it aside (knowing I had all Christmas break to read it), and picked up Doomsday Book. I put it down a few times because I needed to cook meals or other necessary stuff like that (though I did kind of get behind on the laundry). I didn’t quite finish it within 24 hours, as one reader on amazon.com had, but I came close.

I realize that not everyone finds it such a page-turner. Several reader reviews complain that it is much too long and that very little happens, or that it is full of time-travel clichés and too-obvious foreshadowing. I suppose those criticisms have some validity. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The End of Your Life Book Club

August 25, 2013

Sometimes, by the time the library notifies me that a book I had put a hold on is available, I have forgotten requesting it. But when I see that it’s in, I remember requesting it and why. Until this time. When I got the email that The End of Your Life Book Club was available for pickup, I didn’t even recognize the title of the book. Even now, after reading the entire book, I still don’t remember where I heard about it or what prompted me to decide to read it.

Books about books can be very interesting. The idea of a “book club” with two members, a woman dying of pancreatic cancer and her son who discusses books with her during her chemo treatments, was intriguing. I would love to have someone to discuss all the books I read with – though I would hardly wish for chemo treatments to provide the opportunity.

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Books: The Fault in Our Stars

May 6, 2013

When I started reading The Fault in Our Stars, I thought for a while that I would probably have quit reading if it weren’t this month’s selection in our book club. But if I had quit, I would have missed out on a moving story.

There’s nothing objectionable in the first few chapters, there’s just not much that’s particularly thought-provoking either. Yes, it’s a shame these young people are dying of cancer, but that’s not enough of a reason to want to listen in on their lives as they hang out together and watch movies or play video games.

Perhaps it was when Hazel talked about An Imperial Affliction, a book that was like scripture to her, that I began to get more interested. I couldn’t understand her obsession with finding out what happened to the characters in the novel after it ended, but I was intrigued by the insights in the novel and their effect on her.

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Books: The Forge of God

April 3, 2013

Having decided to read something else by Greg Bear (after reading Dinosaur Summer), I chose The Forge of God.  I’ve read a number of post-apocalyptic science fiction stories, usually where humans are the cause of worldwide destruction. This is the first I can think of that I’ve read – from a sci-fi perspective anyway – about the time period before the end of the world.

It’s not humans who threaten to cause their own doom; aliens from some unknown place in the universe are the villains here. They send out machines that destroy planets, presumably to re-make them in a form more suited to the aliens. The science behind the means of the expected destruction is explained in some detail, though my knowledge of those areas of science isn’t enough to know how convincing the scenarios are.

What is of more interest to me is how different people react to the prospect of not only their own death but the end of humanity. Some want to fight back, even if they can’t change the ultimate outcome. Some turn to religion, convinced that the aliens are acting as agents of God’s judgment. Some try to squeeze in all the enjoyable experiences they can have before the end. Others seem overwhelmed by anger, fear, and or despair.

Hardly anyone just goes on with life as usual. Parents keep their children home from school. Businesses fail to deliver products on their normal schedules so stores run out of fresh food.

I can’t say how I would react if I knew for certain that the end was coming in the near future. But it has always made sense to me that one should live in such a way that, if one were to find out that death was coming soon, there would be no need to start living differently. I’m not saying I succeed in living up to that ideal, but I can’t think of major changes I think I would make if I found out I were dying (in a sense other than the way we all are).


An example to follow

February 26, 2012

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal has a very interesting article in the on the choices physicians make when it comes to their own end-of-life decisions. In some ways the comments on the article are even more interesting.

What Ken Murray writes simply confirms my own thinking on the topic. But the comments present a wide variety of views, and bring up some of the practical difficulties in making appropriate end-of-life decisions for ourselves or our loved ones.

One thing that surprised me in the comments was the level of cynicism regarding the motives of the medical establishment. Some people accuse doctors of recommending and performing procedures that cost a lot but do little to improve or extend life, simply to make more money. The more reasonable (IMO) comments point out that doctors feel obliged to provide what amounts to futile care, simply to minimize the possibility of ruinously expensive lawsuits.

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