"All is Vanity"
(Click to enlarge)
Charles Allan Gilbert drew this optical illusion picture in 1892, when he was 18 years old. After he sold it to Life Magazine and they reproduced it as a print, it became famous.
This is an ambiguous optical illusion, where we see more than one thing in the picture. If we view the overall image, we see a human skull. When we focus on the details of the picture, we see a woman looking in her vanity mirror.
A window display from 1907 showcases
multiple prints of the optical illusion "All is Vanity."
The phrase "All is vanity" comes from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Christian Bible. It refers to the vanity and pride of man. In art, vanity has long been represented as a woman preoccupied with her beauty. And art that contains a human skull as a focal point is called a momento mori (Latin for "remember you will die"), a work that reminds people of their mortality.
Vanitas by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671
The type of optical illusion where faces or bodies make up another face is not new. The Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted similar illusions in the 16th Century. In his painting Eve and the Apple, Eve’s face contains nude figures.
Eve and the Apple, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1578
If we look at a close-up, cropped image of "All is Vanity", we don’t see the skull, we just see details of a woman sitting at her dressing table. Look at these three images:
There’s no optical illusion here –
it’s merely the back of a woman.
A woman looks directly out
at us from a mirror.
A vanity table with
tablecloth, candle and flowers.
Again, nothing extraordinary.
But if we expand our view, even without seeing the entire image, once we know we’re going to see a skull, we can’t help but see it.
The skull starts to peer out from this image.
And when we look at the picture from a distance, because of all the black surrounding the skull, once the details of the woman get fuzzy, all we can see is the skull. In the pixelated version of the skull below, it’s almost impossible to see anything but the skull.
"All is Vanity", – pixelated
(Click to enlarge)
(Strange, I never noticed this before, but is that a cross to the right of the skull?)
– Charles Allan Gilbert, Wikipedia>>
– Window display, Saks and Company, New York, 1907. Displaying the papeterie (fancy stationary) made popular by George E. Newcombe & Co., Google Books>>
– Vanity, Wikipedia>>
– Ecclesiastes 1 (King James Version), Bible Gateway>>
– Hidden faces, Wikipedia>>
– Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Olga’s Gallery>>
– Momento mori, Wikipedia>>