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Johannes Vermeer-the-astronomer-1668

The Astronomer, 1668

oil on canvas, 51 cm x 45 cm (20 x 18 in),  Louvre, Paris

Portrayals of scientists were a favourite topic in 17th century Dutch painting and Vermeer’s oeuvre includes both this astronomer and the slightly later The Geographer. Both are believed to portray the same man, possibly Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.

The astronomer sits at a table, bending forward to turn the celestial globe. Above the cupboard are at least ten books of various sizes, and attached to the front is a curious diagram with a large circle and two smaller circles in the upper corners, all with ‘hands’, but its significance is obscure. On the wall is a painting of ‘The Finding of Moses’ (upper right), which reappears in Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid (right).

The celestial globe, which sits on a four-legged grand, was first published by Jodocus Hondius in Amsterdam in 1600.

In Vermeer’s painting the constellations on the upper half of the globe which face the viewer include the Great Bear on the left, the Dragon and Hercules in the centre, and Lyra on the right.

On the table lies an open book (lower right). The presence of an illustration on the left-hand page has made it possible to identify the text as the second edition of Adriaen Metius’s On the lnvestigation or Observation of the Stars, published in Amsterdam in 1621. Vermeer has reproduced the first two pages of section 111. The text on the right-hand page explains how ‘one can learn to measure in the sky through certain geometrical instruments the situation the stars have in accordance with their longitude and latitude’. Below the globe lies a brass astrolabe, an instrument used in navigation and for measuring the position of celestial bodies, similar to that shown in the illustration on the left-hand page of the open book.


The Geographer, 1668-1669

oil on canvas, 20 7/8 x 18 1/4 in., Stadesches Kunstinistitut, Frankfut am Main

Dressed in a Japanese-style robe popular among scholars at that rime, the geographer is someone excited by intellectual inquiry. Surrounded by maps, charts, books, and a globe, he rests one hand on a book and holds dividers with the other. As opposed to the women in Vermeer’s paintings, who are quiet and self-contained, the geographer’s active stance indicates an alert, penetrating mind. Vermeer not only captured the scholar’s energy, he surrounded him with accurately rendered cartographic objects appropriate for a geographer’s study.

The decorative sea chart on the rear wall, showing “all the Sea coasts of Europe,” is by Willem Janz.. Blaeu. Hendrick Hondius’ terrestrial globe (right), which rests on the cabinet in its four-legged stand, is turned to reveal the Indian Ocean, the route taken by the Dutch to reach China and Japan. Other instruments include the dividers, used to mark distances a square lying on the stool in the foreground and a cross-staff, used to measure the angle of the elevation of the sun and stars, hanging from the center post of the window. Among the various rolled charts in the room, the large one on the table is probably a nautical chart made of vellum.