Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God is an oil painting by the Polish artist Jan Matejko, finished in 1873, depicting Nicolaus Copernicus observing the heavens from a balcony by a tower near the cathedral in Frombork (seen in the back). Currently the painting is in the collection of the Jagiellonian University of Kraków, which purchased it from a private owner with money donated by the Polish public.
The painting depicts a kneeling, inspired Nicolaus Copernicus observing the heavens transitioning from night to dawn. He is on a balcony, near or at the cathedral in Frombork, surrounded by various astronomical tools and aids. The scene likely portrays the epiphany moment of Copernicus profound discovery, with his own Heliocentric model drawn on a large flat board (based on an illustration from De revolutionibus) standing next to him.
The exact location depicted by Matejko is fictional; modern scholars are still looking for the exact location of the Copernicus observatory, and agree that Matejko’s portrayal was more of a “romantic vision”. Whereas Matejko shows Copernicus on a tower, in reality his small observatory was probably set up at ground level, possibly in the gardens near his house.
The main features of the composition include a symmetrical focal point with atmospheric perspective around the subject, a radial balance of light arranged around a central element, and dramatic contrasts with dark colours in the periphery. Copernicus’s epiphany or ecstasy is captured through the skillful use of lighting. The models for Copernicus are known to have been Doctor Henryk Levittoux and Matejko’s nephew, Antoni Serafiński.
Gerrit (Gerard) DOU
Leiden 1613-Leiden 1675
Dou occupies a central position in the art of his own time to a point where it is difficult to over-estimate his importance. His early training was with Rembrandt before the latter left Leiden c. 1631/2. They collaborated on at least one picture, the Anna and the Blind Tobit which is in the National Gallery, London. Dou spent the whole of the rest of his career in his native Leiden and he clearly rejected whatever he may have learned from Rembrandt. instead he concentrated on small, highly finished pictures of wide-ranging subject manner, of which he was one of the most proficient masters who has ever lived.
His pictures are curiously restrained in their colour scheme; they have to be appreciated by close inspection. Whatever Dou may have known about Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer, for him their art did not exist. instead he became an enormously important teacher whose influence was to last almost 200 years. He taught Gabriel Metsu and Godfried Schalcken, encouraging them towards painting the highly finished pictures which dominated Dutch taste in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Obviously Dou has been removed from the pedestal on which the taste of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries placed him. Minute detail is no longer considered a sound basis on which to assess the merit of a painting. The twentieth century has lost respect for this skill, and Dou’s controlling position in Leiden is too easily forgotten by modern historians seeking to justify their preference for less influential painters. It has often been suggested, not unreasonably, that Dou’s Lady at the Virginals (in the Dulwich Gallery) is the source of inspiration for Vermeer’s Lady seated at the Virginals (in the National Gallery, London), which was probably painted some ten years later than Dou’s work.
Dou covered a wide range of subject matter, from religious work to most of the different aspects of genre painting. One of his most elaborate and significant pictures is the Quack of 1652 (Rotterdam, Boijmans-van Beuningen Museum), which shows a group of people being taken in by the nonsense of the smooth-talking charlatan. The picture is as full of incident as one by Jan Steen, even down to such normally unmentionable daily events as a mother wiping clean her child’s bottom. Dou himself leers into the picture as a spectator through the window.
Dou’s religious pictures have the same meticulous technique and small scale; a typical example is the Hermit (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), where there is almost a sense of humour in the old man’s facial expression.
It was Dou’s technique which was to form the basis far the Leiden school of fijnschilders or fine painters. His influence was strongest on the van Mieris dynasty, who often painted more elaborate and highly coloured compositions than did Dou himself. But they always remained faithful to the perfectly polished surface in which every detail was included with the utmost respect.
from: Christopher Wright, The Dutch Painters: 100 Seventeenth Century Masters, London, 1978
In an arched, window-like opening, an astronomer works late into the night. Concentrating, he reads an astronomical treatise and measures the distance between two points on a celestial globe. The candle he holds provides the only source of light; it illuminates his face, the book, the precious globe, the beaker of water, and his hourglass.
Strong contrasts between light and dark show the painter Gerrit Dou’s knowledge of a popular Baroque technique known as chiaroscuro . Carefully rendering minute details such as the handwriting in the book, the texture of the glass flask, and the folds in the astronomer’s cloak was Dou’s special talent. Collectors treasured these small, detailed paintings for pleasurable observation in their private rooms.
Olivier Pietersz. van Deuren was born in Rotterdam, where he lived and worked. He served as an officer in the painters’ guild on a number of occasions. Very few works by him are known today.
The young astronomer holds a celestial globe with constellations shown in the form of animals. Among those visible are some of the northern and zodiacal constellations: at the top, Draco; on the left, Ursa Major and, below it, Leo; on the right, beneath the encircling brass ring, Bubuleus. The stand for the globe is on the right, and a quadrant is in the foreground.
The attribution and dating depend on the similarity of this picture with a painting of an astronomer, dated 1685 and signed by van Deuren (New York, Christophe Janet, 1978). The model and globe appear to be the same in both works.
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.