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Critical Assessments: What is the meaning of The Geographer?

The Geographer

c. 1668–1669
Oil on canvas
53 x 46.6 cm. (20 7/8 x 18 1/4 in.)
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Vermeer, Lawrence Gowing

Lawrence Gowing


The later of Vermeer's two dated pictures was painted twelve years after The Procuress and seven years before his death. Half a dozen other pictures seem to show some affinity of style with this work, The Astronomer and its pendant; together they form the group which provides the last entries in the present list. Such evidence as we have of the order in which they were painted is far from conclusive. Some of them have a broad and somber richness not quite characteristic of any earlier period; The Astronomer and The Geographer share the quality with the picture in which appears the boldest of all the painter's uses of his optical substitute for modeling, the Red Hat. In all three the light and shade on massive draperies make a sumptuous pattern liberated from form. The incomparable simplicity of the Beit Letter approaches a similar effect. Further light on this phase may be gathered from the emergence of a decorative elaboration, the quality which, appears in the bright enameling of The Love Letter. It is most marked in the Allegory and the pictures at Trafalgar Square.

Faust in his Study, Rembrandt van Rijnfig. 1 Faust in his Study
Rembrandt van Rijn
Between 1650 and 1654
Etching, drypoint and burin on eastern paper, 20.8 x 16 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

These last stand rather apart from the rest of the group. In tonality and subject they represent one of those reversions which occur at intervals in the painter's development to provide a warning to the student. The Allegory and the The Guitar Player evidently belong to the same phase and the styles, as well as the costumes, of the letter pictures at Amsterdam and in the Beit collection can date from little earlier. These six are the only pictures which there is reason to place after The Astronomer and The Geographer in the last seven years of Vermeer's lire. Yet we have no sense that his activity was cut short: his style reached its natural conclusion. Vermeer's widow is recorded to have stated that he earned little in his final years. In the context the fact would be easy to understand.

In The Astronomer and The Geographer Vermeer dealt, according to his habit, with subjects which were the common property of his school. In particular, he can hardly have been unaware of the numerous pictures of scholars in their studies by Rembrandt and his circle. Among these it is interesting to notice that the nearest precedent for the arrangement of Vermeer's versions is again to be found in drawings by Nicolaes Maes (fig. 2). It does not appear that even these figures can be credited to Vermeer's invention. The Geographer takes up precisely the position of Faust in Rembrandt's famous etching (fig. 1) and in the resemblance we can for once trace Vermeer's radiant and contemplative moment to its source. Vermeer, whose cast of thought was as unlike Rembrandt's as that of any painter, yet must have owed some of the very foundation of it, some of the intensity with which the problems of figure painting presented themselves to rum, to the example with which the master confronted his generation. But it is perhaps significant that only here, as the tension of his own pressing problem and the limitations it imposed at last relax, do we discover a direct link to confirm the relationship which his whole development suggests.

A Scholar i his Study, Nicloas Maesfig. 2 A Scholar in his Study
Nicolaes Maes
Drawing withg brown ink and brown wash on antique laid paper
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

We have a curious evidence of the currency of Vermeer's motif in The Astronomer. Another Astronomer, now in an American collection, which has sometimes been ascribed to him, shows the scholar in a very similar pose. Of the signature on which the attribution rests only the first letters are said to be visible the name of Metsu would be among those which the general appearance of the work would call to mind but elsewhere the picture bears the trace of an inscription of greater interest, a date of 1665. Whether or not it can be credited this version of unknown authorship is evidently the older of the two. Possibly both derive from a common source; material to complete the history of the motif has disappeared.

James Welu

Vermeer's Mania for Maps
Dec 30, 2016

The Nautical Map on the Background Wall

The Scholarly World of Vermeer

Kees Zandvliet

"Vermeer and the Significance of Cartography in His Time."
in The Scholarly World of Vermeer, Zwolle,
1996, pp. 65–66

Who taught Vermeer cartography?

We do not know whether Vermeer received his mathematical training from a Delft surveyor. Perhaps his teacher was the man portrayed as the scientist in The

Antonie Leuwenhoekfig. 3 "My work, which I've done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men. And therewithal, whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. Letter of June 12, 1716

Geographer and The Astronomer. Given that the instruments depicted—such as Jacob's staff and compasses—were indeed practical instruments, it would seem that Vermeer did not intend to paint an arm-chair scientist. In fact, it has been suggested that the scientist portrayed here is none other than Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (fig. 3).

This well-known Delft contemporary of Johannes Vermeer fits the picture of the learned man who derives his knowledge from literature as well as from factual observations. Moreover, Van Leeuwenhoek was a licensed surveyor. Although we know of no maps from his hand, his knowledge of mathematics would certainly come in very handy in his capacity as 'wijnroeier' (municipal comptroller of wine sales) and in his research and instrument making.

As Van Leeuwenhoek's name is also recorded in documents in connection with Vermeer, it is quite possible that he helped Vermeer in the practical application of perspective. Another candidate is the surveyor Johannes de Weert. He qualifies because he trained would-be surveyors and is mentioned as a teacher in a more general sense: he was a schoolmaster and lay reader in the Nieuwe Kerk. More light might be thrown on Vermeer's mathematical training by research in the Delft archives on surveyors. But such research would probably not explain the depiction of imposing wall maps (fig. 5) and globes (fig. 4) in Vermeer's painting, for these were made not by professional surveyors but by cartographers.

The Geographer (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 4 The Geographer (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1668–1669
Oil on canvas, 53 x 46.6 cm.
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
17th-century map, Willem Janszoon Blaeufig. 5 Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica Ac Hydrographica Tabula…
Willem Janszoon Blaeu
1635 (Amsterdam)
Hand colored 21.5 x 16.5 in.

The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer
Osaka, 2000. p. 190

Dressed in a Japanese-style robe popular among scholars at that time, 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 Geographer (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 6 The Geographer (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1668–1669
Oil on canvas, 53 x 46.6 cm.
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

The decorative sea chart on the rear wall (fig. 6), showing "all the Sea coasts of Europe," is by Willem Janz. Blaeu (fig. 7). Hendrick Hondius' terrestrial globe, 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.

The seventeenth century was a time of discovery, when the charting of new and unexplored worlds was a dream realized not only by adventurers and traders but also by geographers and astronomers. From the rime of the first successful trading venture to the South Pacific in 1599 and the arrival of the good ship Liefde on the northeast coast of Kioesioe in April l600, the fruits of the ever-expanding mercantile empire brought Dutch citizens both wealth and marvelous rarities from distant lands.

Pascaarte van alle de Zecusten van Europa. Nieulycx beschreven door Willem Ians Blauw . . . . Willem Janszoon Blaeufig. 7 Pascaarte van alle de Zecusten van Europa. Nieulycx beschreven door Willem Ians Blauw . . . .
Willem Janszoon Blaeu

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