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Vanity Skull Inspired Charles Allan Gilbert

The Vanity skull propelled American artist Charles Allan Gilbert to notoriety. Titled All Is Vanity, the drawing employs an illusion in which the scene of a woman admiring herself in the mirror of her vanity table changes to a human skull when seen from a distance. Gilbert chose his title from Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity”. He produced the vanity skull illustration in 1892. Times magazine finally purchased it in 1902, making Gilbert’s memento mori famous.

Memento Mori Was Popular For Centuries

Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’. Gilbert explored this theme that had been common in Western art for centuries. His vanity skull reminds us that beauty and riches do not last; death awaits us all.

According to Tate Museum:

“A basic memento mori painting would be a portrait with a skull but other symbols commonly found are hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers.”

Related to the memento mori is the Vanitas still life.

“In addition to the symbols of mortality these may include other symbols such as musical instruments, wine and books to remind us explicitly of the vanity (in the sense of worthlessness) of worldly pleasures and goods.”

The Vanity Skull Brightens Dia De Los Muertos Celebrations

Throughout Latin America people celebrate the Christian holy days of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day from October 31 to November 2. Collectively this is called Dia De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. It’s that glorious time of year when a gap opens in the flimsy veil between life and death. People celebrate the lives of loved ones who will never die as long as they are remembered by the living. It’s also a somber reminder that life is fleeting.

Gilbert’s Vanity skull is in good company at Day of the Dead celebrations. Sugar skulls are favorite gifts. Skeletons and skulls decorate everything from candles to clothing, to altars and costumes. Jose Guadalupe Posada’s elegant Catrina Skull (la Calavera Catrina) with her Victorian Era hat has become an icon of modern day celebrations.

All Is Vanity Made The New York Times In 1903

Near Christmas of 1903, The New York Times launched a campaign called The Girl of To-day. The requested readers to send in photographs that epitomized types of American girls. The photos chosen would be published in a special Christmas edition.

“The Christmas number of The New York Times which will be issued on Sunday, Dec. 7, two weeks from to-day, will be in every respect a remarkable publication. Aside from the usual Sunday features, including the regular pictorial supplement, there will be two special sections, each of which represents the highest type of modern illustration.: (NY Times, November 23, 1913)

Editors intended to showcase a new printing process that dramatically altered their ability to reproduce images. Rotogravure printing produced richly detailed, high quality illustrations—even on inexpensive newsprint paper. The Girl of Today was used to launch their new pictorial sections. According to the library of Congress, publishers that could afford to invest in the new technology saw sharp increases both in readership and advertising revenue.

Seven distinguished artists were invited by The New York Times to serve as jurors to choose from hundreds of photographs sent in response to the request to readers to select The Girl of To-day. Among them was C. Allan Gilbert. His vanity skull was published in the NY Times to represent his best work.

The Illusion OF Gilbert’s Vanity Skull

The All Is Vanity “Ambiguous Figure” belongs in a large class of illusions in which a two-dimensional figure, or three-dimensional object can be seen in two or more sharply distinct ways. These are also known as ‘reversible figures’ or ‘bistable figures’

According to the Illusions Index how the All Is Vanity Ambiguous Figure works is controversial.

“It is generally agreed that the retinal image is constant when experiencing the illusion, but what is not agreed is whether the visual experience of the figure changes when the perspectival switch takes place between seeing the woman versus the skull, or whether the experience itself does not change, and it is some post-experiential belief, judgment, or other mental process which changes.“


Charles Allan Gilbert

Details of Gilbert’s life are scant. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut on September 3, 1873. According to the New York Times (November 1903) he was a sickly child. “Laid up for years, he found means of recreation limited, and took to making sketches…” He took lessons from Charles Neil Flagg when he was 16. Three years later, he was enrolled at the Art Students; League. After two years, he went to Paris where he studied at Julien’s under Laurens and Benjamin Constant.

A year later he returned to New York to open a studio. He found success at advertising and illustration. He contributed to magazines including Life, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, the Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s.

He later illustrated a number of books including Life and Gabriella (1916), The Soul of a Bishop (1917), the Age of Innocence (1920), the first edition of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and Gentle Julia (1922). He worked as an animator on Silhouette Fantasies which were shadow plays.

During WWI he worked as a camouflage artist for the U.S. Shipping Board. C. Allan Gilbert died on April 20, 1929, but his vanity skull remains relevant to this day.

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