The Astronomer

(De astronoom)
Oil on canvas
50 x 45 cm. (19 5/8 x 17 3/4 in.)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
there are 9 hotspots in the image below

The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer

critical excerpt

IVMeer / MDCLXVIII [IVM in monogram]
signed on cabinet: IVMeer / MDCLXVIII [IVM in monogram]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)

c. 1668
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)



Johannes Vermeer's Astronomer with frame

  • (?) 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.
    no. 2.
  • 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.
Johannes Vermeer's Astronomer in scale
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.
dutch painting

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.

An engraving of an astrologis

An engraving of an astrologist from:
Spiegel van het menselijk bedrijf
Amsterdam, 1695
Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum

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.

Portrait of Tycho Brahe, Eduard Ender

Portrait of Tycho Brahe
Eduard Ender

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.

The Astronomer (diagram), Johannes Vermeer

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.

Detail of Johannes Vermeer's Astronomer

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."

Geographers at Work,  Cornelis de Man

Geographers at Work
Cornelis de Man
c. 1670
81 x 68 cm.
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

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.

Johannes Vermeer's Geographer and Asronomer

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.

Early depiction of a  Dutch telescope

Early depiction of a "Dutch telescope" from the
"Emblemata of zinne-werck" (Middelburg, 1624) of
the poet and statesman Johan de Brune (1588-1658).
The print was engraved by Adriaen van de Venne, who,
together with his brother Jan Pieters van de Venne
printed books not far from the original optical
workshop of Hans Lipperhey.

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.

A  mariner's astrolabe

Measuring the solar altitude with a
mariner's astrolabe. The astrolabe
was the most important astronomical
instrument during the middle ages.

From Adriaan Metius: De genuino usu utrisque
globi tractatus
, Franecker,1624.

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.