Why is it called Vanity?
The title of the painting references a genre of painting known as vanitas, which was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Usually still-lives, vanitas paintings aimed to remind viewers of their mortality and the fleeting nature of earthly possessions, taking their name from the biblical insistence that “all is vanity”.
In Cowper’s 1907 portrait, the title reminds us that neither the beautiful woman in her luxurious clothes or the ripe grapes in the background can flourish forever – in time, both will fade and die.
Who is the model?
Sadly, we don’t know who the woman in the painting is. With her long, red hair, she bears a strong physical resemblance to the models favoured by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artists Dante Gabriel Rosetti and John Everett Millais in the previous century. In the 1990s, poet Frances Sackett wrote a poem from the perspective of the unknown model, imagining her as perplexed by her role in the creation of the painting: “And so he calls me ‘Vanity’ / And makes me feel the guilt of all / His observation”.
What is she wearing?
The clothes in the painting show a mixture of historic and contemporary influences. The silver hand-mirror and string of pearls reflect the fashion of the early 20th century, but the predominant influence is Renaissance Italy. The woman wears a ferronière (jewelled headband) in a style that dates back to the 15th century, while the the elaborate dress with its serpentine pattern is similar to one depicted in the Italian Renaissance artist Giulio Romano’s Portrait of Margherita Paleologo in the Royal Collection, which Cowper may have studied. The same dress pattern was also used by PRB follower Edward Burne-Jones in his watercolour Sidonia von Bork, now in the Tate’s Collection. Cowper’s desire to emulate Renaissance art extended to a large, ornate picture frame, which he selected himself.