Oil on canvas
50 x 45 cm. (19 5/8 x 17 3/4 in.)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Although this window's construction seems to be analogous to the one in the Geographer, it presents part of a colored decorative stem (see detail left) which is lacking in the latter. Perhaps Vermeer included it only for its aesthetic appeal or perhaps it had a symbolic meaning for Vermeer or for the person who may have commissioned the pair of paintings.
Far less light enters the astronomer's than the geographer's room because the window's second casement is closed (between the open casement and the piece of furniture directly behind it). Thus, the incoming light is concentrated on the contemplative scholar and the celestial globe creating an air of mystery in keeping with the study of the heavens.
The choice of this particular painting-within-a-painting, which represents Moses in the bull rushes, was far from fortuitous. In the Acts of the Apostles, Moses was described "learned in all the wisdom of Egypt." Such wisdom would have no doubt included astronomy in which the Egyptians excelled. Moses was also considered the "oldest geographer" for his leading the Hebrews during their exile. He was also the patron saint of a type of science that did not seek knowledge through observation and experiment like modern science but in the return to old sources of wisdom in the ancient civilizations.
Moses also had a unique significance for the Dutch in as much as they considered the United Provinces a kind of new Israel, the Promised Land. Thus, with the inclusion of the Moses painting, Vermeer's Astronomer represents two different types of 17th-century science, the modern beside the ancient.
Curiously, the same painting appears as a prop in Vermeer's late Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, this time, represented dramatically larger than in the Astronomer (see detail above).
Little is known about this curious technical chart although it has been suggested that the three circular forms indicate some sort of stereoscopic projection. Other historians believe it is a planisphere, a star chart in form of two adjustable disks rotating on a common pivot, used to display the visible stars for any time and date.
We do not know the topics or titles of any of the twenty-five books "of all kinds" cited in the inventory of movable goods of Vermeer's estate. In any case, since books were still expensive, the number is considerable for a family of medium economic means.
Dutch art expert Walter Liedtke believes that "the illusions made in several of his pictures suggest that he was not unread, at least in fields directly related to the matters at hand. And Vermeer probably had a few well-schooled acquaintances, in particular Huygens (who corresponded with Descartes and Mersenne). But there seems no reason to rank Vermeer with learned artists like Rubens or Poussin; he probably had some second-hand notions of science and philosophy, but they appear to have had little bearing on his style. The very qualities that comprise Vermeer's so-called classicism—a term which has nothing to do with other aspects of his work—had been favored in Delft and The Hague for decades: perspective. proportion, restrained action, and expression, a sense of order, and in some cases measure and harmony."
Even though the printed matter of the open book has been painted with a few dabs of deftly applied paint, they are so accurately positioned that historian James A.Welu was able to identify the book as the 1621 second edition of a work by Adriaan Metius, Institutiones Astronomicae et Geographicae (see left). It is opened to Book III, where "inspiration from God" is recommended for astronomical research along with knowledge of geometry and the aid of mechanical instruments.
The right-hand page is filled with text and the left-hand one illustrates a so-called cartwheel astrolabe which Metius himself invented for calculating the position of the sun and stars. Metius' book was intended as a practical guide for studying astronomy and geography, which were more closely related in the 17th century than they are today. The book was recommended for "shippers and pilots" and included "short and clear instructions for the art of navigation." Metius had studied with the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.
Although the author of the opened astronomical manual on the table recommended the use of the globes of Willem Janz. Blaeu, Vermeer painted one made by Blaeu's principal competitor Jodocus Hondius. Hondius' globe presents the complex forms of the constellations, some of which can be made out in the artist's exquisite rendering.
On the upper half to the left is the Great Bear, in the center, the Dragon and Hercules and to the right, Lyra. Three known copies of this celestial globe are preserved in the following collections; the Huntington Library, San Marino; Giannini Library, Lucca and the Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum, Amsterdam. Celestial globes were usually sold in pairs with a terrestrial globe. Vermeer depicted the same globe in the Geographer and the late Allegory of Faith.
Globes of this period were always produced and sold in pairs, a practice which demonstrates the close relationship between astronomy and geography at the time.
The maker of the astrolabe, which up propped up obliquely against the globe, has been recently identified by Koenraad Van Cleempoel as Willem Jansz. Blaeu, the author of the map in Vermeer's Geographer.
The astrolabe is an historical astronomical instrument and analog computer used by classical astronomers and astrologers. Its many uses included locating, and predicting the positions of, the Sun, Moon, planets and stars; determining local time given local longitude, and vice-versa; surveying and triangulation. The identification was done after a series of detailed engravings of astrolabes by Blaeu, which are dedicated to Metius and published in Metius' book Astrolabium of 1632.
No one knows for certain who invented the astrolabe, but it was the chief navigational instrument until the invention of the sextant in the 18th century. Some historians credit the invention of the astrolabe to Hipparchus (2nd century BC), and some to Hypatia of Alexandria. Astrolabes were not only fundamental to the Dutch for practical reasons such as maritime navigation, but could be found in "cabinets of curiosities" of the moneyed elite.
In Vermeer's Astronomer, the astrolabe may suggest man's need to chart his course in life through careful and rational application of logic and measurement.
None of the models who posed for Vermeer's interiors have ever been objectively identified even though many scholars have supposed that the majority were members of his own family, especially his wife and eldest daughters.
Specialists have always entertained the idea that the same man, with straight nose and full lips, posed for both the Astronomer and the Geographer (details left). He also bears a certain resemblance with the standing suitor in the Music Lesson (upper right). It seems out of the question that Vermeer himself posed for the Astronomer even though a lost self portrait once existed.
The most likely candidate, although far from certain, was Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (who may have even commissioned the two paintings), the famous Dutch scientist who lived a few blocks from Vermeer in Delft. Van Leeuwenhoek has been linked to Vermeer on two accounts. The Delft scientist was an expert lens maker and could have conceivably helped Vermeer with the lens and optical science necessary to build a camera obscura. Moreover, among the few documents that reveal Vermeer's life is a note from the Delft public records which states that the aldermen of the city designate Anthony van Leeuwenhoek as the receiver in the bankruptcy case of Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer widow. It is dated September 30, 1676, a year after the artist's death. Ironically, both men's names appear on another page in the Delft ledger: the one recording their baptisms in 1632.
The astronomer wears a so-called Japonsche rok, a highly desired garment, a kimono tailored into a kind of house robe. It was especially worn by scholars in their studios and appear in a great many paintings of doctors, geographers and astronomers. Initially such keizersrokken, or Imperial kimonos, were gifts given in batches of thirty and sometimes even more to Dutch merchants who passed the test of their annual visit to the Imperial court in Edo (Tokyo). This visit was their only permitted sojourn on the Japanese mainland; at all other times they were confined to Deshima, the island assigned to them for the duration of their stay in Japan. Thus, these robes were neither merchandise in Japan nor clearly for sale back home in Holland.
By the mid-17th century roks were made from imported Indian and Chinese silk and became a more common imitation ware. In Vermeer's day, then, for his astronomer to wear a roks is to wear a garment which had not yet been commodified.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)
- (?) Adriaen Paets I, Rotterdam (?1669-d.1686);
- (?) his son, Adriaen Paets II, Rotterdam (1686-d.1712);
- sale (Paets et al.?), Rotterdam, 27 April 1713, no. 10 or 11, sold together;
- Hendrick Sorgh, Amsterdam (?1713-d.1720);
- Sorgh sale, Amsterdam, 28 March 1720, no. 3 or 4, sold together;
- Govert Looten, Amsterdam (before d.1727);
- Looten sale, Amsterdam, 31 March 1729, no. 6, sold together with pendant of the same no. Jacob Crammer Simonsz, Amsterdam (by d.1778);
- Crammer Simonsz sale, Amsterdam, 25 November 1778, no. 18, sold together with pendant (to De Vries);
- Jean Etienne Fizeaux, Amsterdam (1778-d.1780);
- his widow, Amsterdam (1780-?1785);
- [Pieter Fouquet, Amsterdam, and Alexandre Joseph Paillet, Paris, 1784-85];
- Jan Danser Nijman, Amsterdam (?before 1794-d.1796);
- Danser Nijman sale, Amsterdam, 16 August 1797, no. 167, sold separately (to Gildemeester);
- Jan Gildemeester, Amsterdam (1797-d.1799);
- Gildemeester sale, Amsterdam, 11 June 1800, no. 139 (to La Bouchère);
- Michael Bryan sale, ?London, 9 May 1804, no. 145a;
- John Gibbons, near Birmingham (by 1820-28 or later);
- sale, place unknown, 7 October 1820, no. 31 (bought in);
- his brother?, William Gibbons, sale, London, 18 June 1857, no. 52, as A Philosopher (to [Henry?] Tate);
- Léopold Double, sale, Paris, 30 May 1881, no. 17 (to Gauchez);
- [Léon Gauchez, Paris; sold to Rothschild between 1881 and 1888];
- Alphonse de Rothschild, Paris (until d.1905);
- his son, Edouard de Rothschild, Paris (1905-d.1949);
- (between November 1940 and 1945 confiscated for Hitler's intended museum in Linz);
- his son, Guy de Rothschild (1949-82);
- acquired in 1983 by the Musée du Louvre, Paris (inv. RF 1983-28).
- Paris 1966 24 Sept. – 28 Nov., 1966
Dans la lumière de Vermeer. Musée de l'Orangerie.
no. X and ill.
- Frankfurt 1997
Johannes Vermeer: der Geograph und der Astronom nach 200 Jahren wieder vereint. Städelschen Kunstinstitut.
- Atlanta October 12, 2008 - September 6, 2009
The Louvre and the Masterpiece. The High Museum of Art.
- Minneapolis, Minnesota October 18, 2009 - January 19, 2010
The Louvre and the Masterpiece. Institute of Arts.
- Budapest, Hungry 31 October 2014-15 February 2015
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budhapest.
- Boston October 11, 2015 – January 18, 2016
Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer
|vermeer's life||Vermeer signs and dates the Astronomer 1668. Some scholars believe that Delft citizen Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who was by then internationally recognized for his studies in optics and scientific observations, posed for the Astronomer, although portraits of Leeuwenhoek bears little resemblance to the seated man in Vermeer's picture.|
Rembrandt paints Return of the Prodigal Son.
Gabriel van de Velde paints Golfers on the Ice.
Philips Wouwerman, Dutch painter, dies. He was the most celebrated member of a family of Dutch painters from Haarlem, where he worked virtually all his life. He became a member of the painters' guild in 1640 and is said by a contemporary source to have been a pupil of Frans Hals. The only thing he has in common with Hals, however, is his nimble brushwork, for he specialized in landscapes of hilly country with horses - cavalry skirmishes, camps, hunts, travelers halting outside an inn, and so on. In this genre he was immensely prolific and also immensely successful.
|european painting & architecture||
Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, Austian architect, is born.
Bernini sculpts a terra cotta study for one of the angels of Rome's Port Santa Angelo.
Nov 10, Francois Couperin, composer and organist (Concerts Royaux), is born in Paris, France.
Danish organist-composer Diderik Buxtehude, 31, is named organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, succeeding Franz Tunder (whose daughter, Anna, he marries).His sacred Abendmusiken concerts will be presented each year during Advent on the five Sundays before Christmas. Buxtehude's cantatas and instrumental organ work will have a strong influence on other composers.
Mar 5, Francesco Gasparini, composer, is born.
Apr 13, John Dryden (36) became 1st English poet laureate.
|science & philosophy||
Robert Hooke: Discourse on Earthquakes.
Newton invents the reflecting telescope, building the first telescope based on a mirror (reflector) instead of a lens (refractor).
First accurate description of red corpuscles by Anthony van Leeuwenhoek. Leeuwenhoek was born in the same year as Vermeer and is often associated to the artist for their interest in optics.
Chemist Johann R. Glauber dies at Amsterdam March 10 at age 63.
Mar 26, England takes control of Bombay, India.
Mar 27, English king Charles II gives Bombay to the East India Company.
Sep 16, King John Casimer II of Poland abdicates his throne.
Louis XIV of France purchased the 112 carat blue diamond from John Baptiste Tavernier for 220,000 livre. Tavernier is also given a title of nobility.
Feb 7, The Netherlands, England and Sweden conclude an alliance directed against Louis XIV of France.
Vermeer's Astronomer should not be understood as a portrayal of modern science, a painterly expression of the Copernican revolution in astronomy. In Vermeer's time, all natural phenomena, including the heavens, had an inexorable moral significance which implied the Divine Creator who had created nothing without a reason. Thus, everything in God's creation held a moral lesson or admonition.
Historian Klaas van Berkel has demonstrated that the present work represents a combination of ancient wisdom (see the painting of Moses on the wall to the right) and modern science, represented by the various scientific instruments on the table. It should be remembered that the idea of science as a coherent enterprise as we know it today was just emerging. Science had to compete with deep-rooted philosophical and religious truths.
In the past, some scholars have challenged the activity of the supposed astronomer citing the evident lack of a telescope and the fact that the figure is working within a closed environment during the daytime. Perhaps, they surmised, he was devoting himself to the older, non-empirical science of astrology, in other words, he was drawing up a horoscope or in some way attempting to divine the order of the natural world through the movements of the celestial bodies. In those times there was no clear distinction between astronomy and astrology, while there was a strong division between astronomy/astrology and physics. Famed astronomers such as Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, who were dedicated empiricists, were still practicing astrologists. Kepler believed in astrology convinced that planetary configurations physically and really affected humans as well as the weather on earth. He advocated that a definite relationship between heavenly phenomena and earthly events could be established.
The wealth of Dutch 17th-century paintings which represent astronomers and astrologers reveals the interest in the study of the universe and its effect on mankind. The Astronomer was painted while Louis XIV was building an observatory in Paris (1667-72). In 1668, the young Isaac Newton improved the design of the reflecting telescope which James Gregory had developed in 1663. A decade earlier, Christian Huygens had discovered the Saturn's sixth satellite. But astronomy was also of great practical importance to navigation, which was the lifeline of the Dutch economy: maritime trade. However, even as the nature of science was undergoing a radical change, teachings of the conservative humanists such as Sebastian Brant continued to be expounded. They taught that it would be presumptuous and improper in respects to the divine scheme of things to a attempt to discover the nature of the stars and the history, size and composition of the earth. They imposed a ban on curiositas, scientific inquiry and on any science based on experience and empirical research.
In order to imbue a sense of order and permanence to his images of momentary events, Vermeer carefully bound together the pictorial elements of his canvases. In the Astronomer, two distinct realities of the work are brought into relation, its perspective construction (which creates illusion of depth) and the painting's rectangular flatness, the so-called picture plane. In the diagram to the right, we can see that the geometrical center of the painting (indicated by the point where the two yellow diagonals cross) and the vanishing point (indicated by the point where all the light gray perspective orthogonals meet), in fact, fall precisely on the same point. Lest we think that this coincidence is fortuitous (statistically highly improbable) we find the same construction in one of Vermeer's earlier works, the Woman Holding a Balance.
Technical evidence published in 1997 has dispelled the long-held doubt that the signature and date on the cupboard were a later addition by another hand. Thus, the Astronomer is one of the very few canvases signed and dated by Vermeer.
Vermeer is popularly known as a painter of women. Male figures usually play a supportive role such as a suitors, musicians or musical instructors.
Although it would seem that only two paintings, the Astronomer and the Geographer, feature men as the exclusive figure, we must add two other paintings which have been lost. The 1696 Amsterdam auction catalogue (the Dissius sale in which 21 paintings by Vermeer were sold) reports a "In which a gentleman is washing his hands in a see-through room with sculptures, artful and rare, by ditto (Vermeer)" and "The portrait of Vermeer in a room with various accessories, uncommonly beautiful painted by him."
The importance that women played in the Dutch household is clearly indicated by their frequency in interior paintings. The unassuming household reflects concepts that were important to Dutch culture such as family, privacy, intimacy and comfort.
Dutch paintings which focus exclusively on a male figure usually exhibit them in their professional capacity such as doctors, scientists or painters. Gerrit Dou, one of the most highly paid Dutch painters, represented an astronomer plotting the course of the stars on a celestial globe, a personification of the pursuit of knowledge. Cornelis de Man, who lived in Delft, painted several pictures of scholars in their studio (see left) most likely in response to Vermeer's works.
Since their reemergence, the Astronomer and the Geographer have been believed to form a pendant: that is, two paintings created explicitly to be hung side by side, even though some specialists have noted inconsistencies which disqualify them as such.
Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke has recently concluded that the two are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, pendants. Technical evidence shows that the signatures and dates, analogous in both works, are original, contrary to former analysis. The two figures in Vermeer's pendants are linked by the contemplative, rather than active, pursuit in their respective disciplines. Furthermore, both works are of the same dimension. Liedtke believes that the Geographer, dated one year later, was clearly meant to be hung on the left.
As far as document sources on the early history of the telescope can be trusted, the earliest serviceable telescopes that could magnify more than a few times appear to have been first made in the Netherlands during the first years of the 17th century. Here, as abroad, these early telescopes found very rapid deployment not only by mariners and military officers but by astronomers as well. Within a few years after its invention, the telescope had become the most important tool of the astronomer. It also became of vital importance for military and navigational use.
In 25 September 1608, the Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lipperhey traveled from Middelburg, the capital of the Province of Zeeland, to The Hague, the seat of the States General, then the governing body of the Dutch Republic, to apply for a patent for "a certain instrument for seeing far." Lipperhey's application is the oldest known record anywhere in the world of an actual and usable telescope, an instrument that has changed the world in many respects, together with the microscope (an instrument developed directly from the telescope).
During his stay in The Hague the spectacle maker demonstrated the telescope to the Stadholder, Prince Maurits of Orange, and several other court officials and diplomats, who had gathered in this city for a peace conference. In this diplomatic context the vital importance of the telescope was grasped immediately. The news of the new strategic "spyglass" spread throughout Europe like wildfire. As a result, Lipperhey was ordered to produce several telescopes. A patent was, however, not granted, as Lipperhey's invention was disputed, for instance by his fellow-citizen Sacharias Jansen and by Jacob Metius of Alkmaar. However, within less than six months after Lipperhey's demonstration in The Hague, the telescope was in the possession of the most important European authorities: at least one telescope was owned by the States General; another was held by their commander-in-chief; a third and a fourth had been sent to the French King and his prime minister; another instrument was in the hands of the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, and even the Pope in Rome had received a telescope, a gift from one of the Vatican diplomats.
The significance of the instrument increased further when, starting in 1609, Galileo Galilei used more powerful telescopes of "Dutch design" in Italy for his astronomical discoveries. Of these the satellites of Jupiter are the most famous. Now the telescope also had become a major tool for astronomy.
Vermeer lived in an age and nation where "pure" scientific investigation went hand-in-hand with the invention and perfection of scientific instrumentation. The Netherlands was for all practical purposes, a country constantly "under construction."
Cartography was employed for planning battles during the long, brutal war of independence fought against Spain while engineers provided the necessary mathematical knowledge for the construction of fortifications and assistance in sieges. In times of peace, cartography became indispensable for mapping shipping routes. Mathematics was required to develop efficient land reclamation schemes and defense systems against the sea which was a constant threat to a nation largely underneath the level of the sea.
Painters too, were not averse to utilizing scientific apparatus to understand and replicate complicated optical phenomena they wished to represent on their canvases. Vermeer almost certainly used the camera obscura at some stage in the painting process and at least once, a compass to draw the circular perimeter of a ceramic jug in his early Procuress.
In the Astronomer, Vermeer displays various objects associated with scientific investigation: the celestial globe, a scientific chart and a manual for astronomers by Adriaan Metius, which lies open on the table, as well as an astrolabe. However, he did not intend to portray a real life astronomer. No telescope, a standard piece of equipment for the average astronomer, can be seen. Furthermore, while not obsolete, the celestial globe and the book by Metius were not the most up-to-date.
In essence, Vermeer shows us an astronomer/philosopher who, as Klass van Berkel wrote, reflects "on the nature of the cosmos, with the help of a book and some instruments; someone who not only calculates and describes, but who also reflects and contemplates."
Adolf Hitler, himself a failed painter, ordered the pillaging of masterpieces from occupied Europe. One of the works he most coveted was Vermeer's Astronomer.
Hitler wanted the Astronomer, together with the Art of Painting, to be the centerpiece of a museum he planned to build in his hometown, Linz. The Astronomer must have appealed to his nationalistic ambitions since he was convinced that, as well as the Geographer, it celebrated early "Germanic" scientific achievements.
The painting was confiscated, along with more than 5,000 other artworks, from Jewish financier Edouard de Rothschild, whose family had owned it for half a century. It was packed into a crate labeled H13 (H for Hitler), loaded onto a train and shipped from Paris to Germany on Feb. 3, 1941.
The Astronomer was recovered by a cadre of art specialists known as "Monuments Men" in May 1945 with more than 8,000 other paintings, sculpture and artworks, hidden deep in a mountain salt mine in Altaussee, Austria. With it were Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna sculpture, dumped on a filthy mattress, and Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece. The mouth of the mine had been dynamited shut, and it was feared everything had been destroyed in compliance with Hitler's orders to prevent anything falling into the hands of the "conquerors."
Fortunately, Hitler's orders were subverted by two mine engineers who blew up the passages so the Nazis couldn't get past to detonate the rest of the mountain. After the war The Astronomer was returned to its owner, whose family gave or sold it to the Musée du Louvre in 1983.