Newspapers, plastic cups, shopping bags, fashion trends, sunsets, innocence, youth – life itself, really – are all ephemeral: “one who or something which has a transitory existence” (Oxford English Dictionary). ‘Ephemeral,’ is a quantitative word used to describe a duration of time. It brings the abstract, never-ending, never-beginning concept of ‘time’ down to the human scale. It is most commonly applied to things with a very short life-span, such as sunny afternoons, meteor showers, or, as the etymology shows, day-flies. The root of ‘ephemeral’ is the Latin word ephemera, meaning “An insect that (in its imago or winged form) lives only for a day. In mod. entomology the name of a genus of pseudo-neuropterous insects belonging to the group Ephemeridæ (Day-flies, May-flies)” (OED). ‘Ephemera’ can be used to describe the items from a time that are least likely to survive. For example, pattern books are ephemera from the Arts and Crafts movement. They were paper catalogues used by companies such as Josiah Wedgewood Pottery, among others, for customers to look through and choose products to order. They were not meant to last for a substantial amount of time. However, today they are considered to be important artifacts of the Arts and Crafts movement. In this sense they are both ephemera and enduring.
The criteria for what qualifies as ephemeral varies based on the scale at which it is viewed. On a day-to-day basis, paper cups, plastic bags and sunlight are ephemeral. On the scale of one lifetime, childhood, innocence, and material possessions are ephemeral. On a timeline of all eternity, planet Earth and human existence are ephemeral.
In Holland in the 16th and 17th century, Vanitas paintings were a popular genre among artists and consumers. Vanitas paintings meant to remind one of the fleeting, ephemeral nature of our time on earth, and draw attention to the futility of wealth and material luxury. The subject of Vanitas paintings includes such things as fresh flowers, jewelry, succulent food, and skulls. They served as a reminder that life is temporal, and that our short time on earth should not become consumed by materiality or greed. They asserted that we should enjoy the pleasures and luxuries of life, but remember that they are transitory and of little significance. The flowers in Vanitas paintings are often at the beginning stages of wilting, or speckled with bugs, and the bones and animal skulls – symbols of death – are not uncommon. The depiction of objects that are ephemeral on the scale of a day, or one lifetime, stand for the ephemerality of things on greater scale, such as life itself, and our existence, and remind us not to lose sight of the most important aspects in our life.
“ephemeral, adj. and n.” OED Online, accessed Nov, 21, 2012. Oxford University Press.
Stokstad, Marilyn and Micheal Cothren. Art History. New York: Pearson 2010. Print