According to David Gluck the painter of The “Vanitas” is that this piece is a modern take on a very traditional theme. Vanitas paintings enjoyed great popularity in the Baroque period, especially amongst the Dutch painters. The subject matter is meant to provoke contemplation of the brevity of life, and common motifs included an extinguished candle, a wilting flower, a timepiece, or even bubbles. Coins symbolized the materialism of the world, dice represented chance, and a skull reminded the viewer that our bodies are merely vessels for the mind and soul. Musical instruments reminded the viewer that, like a song, life comes to an end at some point.
The objects in Gluck’s “Vanitas” are more contemporary. Instead of an instrument, there is a record. Instead of a candle, a cigarette butt. The shell represents birth, the book represents knowledge, and the pulley represents balance. The key represents opportunity, and the cards, marble and dice represent chance and risk David has a very funny note about the skull. “It is a real human skull and it was given to my wife for our third anniversary along with half a skeleton. Sounds weird I know, but she is a fellow artist who also loves anatomy and diamonds just aren’t her thing. Not many people can say they gave their wife a dead body in box to celebrate the third year of their union. ”
According to Wikipedia:
In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The word is Latin, meaning “emptiness” and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. Ecclesiastes 1:2 from the Bible is often quoted in conjunction with this term. The Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) renders the verse as Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. The verse is translated as Vanity of vanities; all is vanity by the King James Version of the Bible, and Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless by the New International Version of the Bible.
Vanitas themes were common in medieval funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. By the 15th century these could be extremely morbid and explicit, reflecting an increased obsession with death and decay also seen in the Ars moriendi, Danse Macabre and the overlapping motif of the Memento mori. From the Renaissance such motifs gradually became more indirect, and as the still-life genre became popular, found a home there. Paintings executed in the vanitas style are meant as a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for many paintings of attractive objects.
Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay like ageing; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled lemon, as well as accompanying seafood was, like life, attractive to look at, but bitter to taste. There is debate among art historians as to how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is implied in still lifes without explicit imagery such as a skull. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message.
In any case we love the painting. I can be viewed at M Gallery of Fine Art SE 11 Broad Street in Charleston or at http://www.mgalleryoffineart.com/searchresults.php?artistId=12086