Skip to main content

C. Allan Gilbert’s “All Is Vanity”: The Ultimate Death Illustration

I am interested in the arts, particularly classical music and literature. I write on a variety of topics, including art and religion.

"All Is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert

"All Is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert

"All Is Vanity" Painting

Alright, all you fans of goth culture, here’s one you’ve probably never seen, but it will most likely move to the top of your list of favorites.

All Is Vanity was drawn by Charles Allan Gilbert (1873–1929), an American illustrator who has been almost completely forgotten. This is the one illustration that sometimes keeps his name in front of the public.

Who Was Charles Allan Gilbert?

Very little is known about his life. He was born in Connecticut on September 3, 1873. He was a sickly child and consequently made enormous advances in art at an early age. He primarily provided illustrations for popular magazines but later turned to book illustration (he illustrated the first edition of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton) and eventually worked with John Randolph Bray (1879–1978), the man who released the world’s second animated color film.

C. Allan Gilbert died of pneumonia on April 20, 1929. All Is Vanity was drawn in 1892 when he was just 19 years old. It was published 10 years later in Life magazine.

Symbolism in All Is Vanity

All Is Vanity is an allegory of death that shows a sophisticated late-Victorian era woman gazing into a mirror as she is seated at the vanity table in what appears to be her bedroom. The round mirror, connecting with the cloth on the table, creates the image of a human skull.

The site of the skull in the picture can be appreciated only if it is looked at from a distance. The skull’s eyes are created, on the right-hand side, by the reflected image of the woman’s face and on the left-hand side by the actual head of the woman. The nose appears to be the reflection of some nearby drapes.

If you look closely at the picture, you can see there are numerous bottles lined up on the vanity table. These create the appearance of the skull’s teeth. While you are looking at this, move your gaze just a little further to the right, and you will see a lone lighted candle (most likely representing life) on the edge of the table. Just think how easily it could be extinguished.

If you look at the face of the woman, it almost seems laughable when you see how much she resembles nearly every other female seen in advertisements from this era. Doesn’t she look an awful lot like the women in early Coca-Cola ads and promos for dental powders? Then again, C. Allan Gilbert probably did this intentionally.


Yann on June 27, 2016:

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Feltmagnet

Ive seen this painting "all is vanity" many years ago in one of the famous resorts in philippines called villa escodero, owned by filipino/ spanish family. They have gallery of painting and such, and a display of gold expedition and so on. Anyway I really admire this painting that I thought one of the daughter was the real creator or original creator of this painting.

What Art on January 11, 2016:

I saw that painting in "sherlock the Abominable bride".

Petra Newman on February 03, 2013:

What a clever piece of art. Facinating.

AZJoe on February 02, 2013:

You're right! She does look like the woman in the old Coca-Cola ads. Cool!

SimpleJoys on February 02, 2013:

This is wild! Beautiful yet frightening too!

ilscherzo from Singapore on February 02, 2013:

I saw this one quite a few years ago, and it certainly struck me as being scary, in an almost surreal sense.