All Is Vanity


All Is Vanity by Charles Allan Gilbert 1892


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.

I discovered this image when I was a small child and I was immediately fascinated by it. How could something so beautiful also be so horrific?

At first I saw the woman at the dressing table and remember thinking “I wish I could draw like that.” As my eyes took in the details, I began to see the frightening image of a human skull emerging .

WOW! How cool is this?’

There is no doubt in my mind that this image impacted me so much that it made me want to be an artist.

As I shared this image with friends, I realized some could only see the woman at the dressing table and could not see the skull. There were others who only saw the skull and their eyes could not find the woman anywhere. And there were a few who, like me , could see both parts of the images. Try as they might, the people who could only see one part or the other could never see the parts they were missing.

I found this discovery interesting. We can all look at the same thing: a photograph, painting, print, movie etc and take away something different.  Perhaps more interesting to me was how the people who could only see one view of this image and not the other  insisted that I was making something up; I was lying to them. They were sure that I was trying to trick them somehow. I wasn’t. There was no trickery involved. In my perspective, both images were so obvious I could not understand how anyone could not see them.

I have been thinking a lot about this image these days.

How can millions of people look at the same person, evaluate his behavior and reactions and come away with extremely different and conflicting conclusions?

I think what’s happening can be explained by this print.

What did you see first?

Did you see the beautiful, pleasant woman gazing at her reflection? Or did you see the human skull?

Can you see both parts of this story or will your eyes only focus on one part of the image or the other?

Here’s ‘The Thing’. Once you can see the combined images, you can never unsee them. I will never be able to go back and see only the beautiful woman.

Once the evil has been revealed, it can not be unknown.

Our country is about swear into office of President the human equivalent of this image.

For his supporters, the PE represents the beautiful part of this print. These people see him as a good person who promises to make this country ‘Great Again’ . They cannot and will never be able to see the frightening  and evil persona that does not even try to hide its face.

For the rest of us, we can not see anything else.