Is it the smile—smug and a little condescending? The tilt of her head, lifted slightly as she looks down both literally and figuratively on those around her? Maybe it’s the jewels, or the opulent fabric of her gown. Or maybe, even more likely, it is the mirror in her hand, a mirror that is likely one of her favorite accessories. Her name is Vanity, and the name seems to suit her.
I first saw Vanity two years ago when I was browsing Pinterest for character inspiration. The work is by British artist Frank Cadogan Cowper, and was completed in 1907. It falls into the category of paintings known as vanitas, a style of painting popular in the 17th century, known for displaying objects reflecting the transience of life and the frivolity of earthly pleasures.
I knew when I first saw Vanity that I wanted, no I NEEDED to use her as the inspiration for a character. She has personality, an expression that captivates, and a story that I would love to hear. But let me be honest. The artist is amazing, and the detail of this painting is wonderful. But the lush surroundings are really not what interests me the most. To me, the most striking thing of all is the way Vanity can’t seem to tear her eyes from her reflection even for a moment. Her sidelong glance at the mirror implies her eyes are stuck to her own image, even when her head is turned. And most fascinating to me of all is this question: I wonder, when she gazes into that mirror for hours on end, does she like the person she sees? Or does she even think about it?
I do know that she made me think. I immediately thought of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Here is a woman swimming in luxury, clearly enamored with herself and her reflection. But what else is there to her? And was I judging her to quickly? What if what is represented in this painting is simply a snapshot of a second in time, a moment of quiet admiration, a sliver of time in an otherwise busy and mirror-free day? Did I jump to conclusions?
I don’t know. None of us know for sure, the woman depicted in the painting is a mystery. No one besides Frank Cadogan Cowper knows with certainty, and he can no longer tell us. But that’s what I like about art. When we look at works of visual art, they inspire us as writers to think about our written characters as multi-faceted, fascinating, and complex beings with strong feelings and impulses. Vanity may not be obsessed with her own beauty, in reality she may be a totally different person than the one we see here in the painting. As a writer it is a thrilling and rewarding journey to unpack the mysteries of a character, to imagine what else could lie behind a smiling face.
What artwork inspires you to write? Is there a painting or photograph that has given you the spark for that amazing idea or character? If you’re still searching I hope that you find that spark, and that it grows into a fire of creativity that motivates and excites and inspires and challenges those around you to see the world in a different way. Because that’s what artists do best 🙂
Pulling out a character from a freeze-frame moment in time sounds like a great idea. At some point I will have a go at that exercise, when I feel more confident with attempting fiction. I love that very famous one of that Dutch(?) couple in front of the barn. American Gothic (I’ve just googled it!). I know it’s been riffed on lots of times but it’s still absorbing!
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I love that painting too, I think it would be amazing to write about! There is definitely potential for so many interesting characters there:)
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