Traditional Vanitas paintings originating in the 16th and 17th centuries are still-lifes intended to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the worthlessness of worldly goods and pleasures. Symbols of vanity include jewels, gold coins, and often a skull or the figure of death himself alongside decaying fruit or flowers. During the Renaissance, vanity was represented as a nude woman, serving as a warning of the ephemeral nature of youthful beauty and the inevitability of death. She is often depicted attending to her hair or looking into a mirror, as in the Rokeby Venus by Velazquez. In this instance her reflection is said to appear much older than her body, a warning of the ephemerality of beauty. Venus was regarded as the most beautiful of the goddesses and often seen as the personification of female beauty. This meant she lent herself to representation of Renaissance ideas of vanity, which included taking pleasure in one’s own appearance, demanding admiration and a sense of superiority.
As John Berger explains, there is more behind such representations of women in front of mirrors than meets the eye. He addresses the male artist; “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” In doing so, the artists invites the viewer to participate in her condemnation, thus offering them full permission to behold her with guilt-free desire. This led the painting to become a target for suffragette Mary Richardson in 1906, who slashed its surface five times with a meat cleaver. In fact if Venus were admiring herself in the mirror it would not be possible for us to see her reflection from our position – what she would actually see is us looking at her. This phenomenon has been titled 'the Venus effect’.
The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of painters who had a particular interest in vanity. They often portrayed women with loose flowing hair, when in reality it was only worn this way by children; it was customary for adult women to braid or pin their hair up meaning it was only visible when dressing or undressing. Its appearance in art has therefore an intimate, erotic significance. This is the case for Rosetti’s 'Lady Lilith’, a woman known as the first wife of Adam, associated with the seduction of men. She is shown as a “powerful and evil temptress” with harsh facial features. According to a sonnet that Rosetti wrote and inscribed on the frame, Lady Lilith represents the beauty of the body, whilst a companion painting 'Sibylla Palmifera’ represents the beauty of the soul. This suggests that Lady Liliith functions in part as a vanitas, reminder of the ephemeral nature of bodily beauty. Although Lilith is a mythological figure, Rosetti’s painting depicts her as a modern woman, contemplating her own beauty in a handheld mirror. She epitomises the rising trend of the narcissistic female figure in art. However unlike Velazquez’s Venus, Lilith is a powerful, threatening, sexual woman who resists domination by men. This has led her to be considered a symbol of the feminist movement.
Aubrey Bearsdleys 'Toilette of Salome’, created 40 years later is more of a celebration rather than a condemnation of vanity. Like Lady Lilith, Salome’s vanity goes hand in hand with great power over men. She famously seduced Herod through her dancing in exchange for the head of John the Baptist. Decadence, a prevailing feeling of the time that characterised the drawings of Beardlsey, was concerned with cosmetics, artifice and self-presentation. These themes are all present here. Salome sits naked at her dressing table enjoying the attentions of a masked barber as she prepares for her dance. As in Rosetti’s work, attention to the hair is used to portray vanity. In the same series is 'The peacock skirt’ (peacocks being another conventional symbol of vanity), indicative of Salome’s obsession with her seductive power. The works are reflective of a modern society grown over-luxurious and sophisticated, and one in which Beardsley himself participated as a dandy. Although this means that the work is not directly critical, its anticipation of Salome’s eventual death as a result of her vanity once more links it to the traditional vanitas - reminder of the inevitability of death.