The Geographer

Städel Museum

The Geographer (1669) by Johanes VermeerStädel Museum

Engrossed in his work, the geographer pauses for a moment.

He seems to be totally absorbed in his thoughts.

The window separates him from the painting’s outside world...

... while the stool and carpet create a distance between the figure and the viewer.

Conceived as a pendant to The Astronomer, The Geographer was painted by Vermeer in 1669 in Delft. The geographer is not just a feature in the work, but determines the spatial relations in the composition. He is presented as a scholar, totally immersed in his studies. He has the instruments he needs to measure the world at hand – maps, a pair of dividers, and a globe just showing, hardly visible, the Indian Ocean. At that time, the most important trading posts for the young United Netherlands were in Asia, Indonesia, India and Japan.

This painting is informed by the zeitgeist of its day, a time when explorers were keen to fill in the white patches on the globe, and investigate the natural world through the rational methods of modern science. Here, Vermeer presents us with a carefully composed allegorical image of scientific progress.

The Geographer
Vermeer wanted to get the geographer’s posture right. Infrared images show that he tried out different versions, one with the head in a higher position and a taller hat, another with the head slightly tilted down, turned more to the left, perhaps looking on the map. In the end he decided to show him glancing through the window into the far distance, thus setting the painting’s atmosphere by choosing the moment of inspiration.

The pair of dividers
In accordance with this decision, Vermeer also changed the pair of dividers: the scholar no longer holds them in a steep, more “active” position. The more horizontal position and loose grasp communicate more convincingly that he is actually pausing his work with this tool which was used for measuring, calculating and transferring the distance between two geographical points.

Brass square and piece of paper
On the stool we see another tool, a brass square. Originally, a piece of paper laid next to it, but it was later overpainted. You can make out its contours. A white spot in the mostly shadowy foreground would probably have distracted the viewer’s attention and disrupted the overall composition. Additionally, it would simply have been too near to the light-coloured roles of maps lying carelessly on the floor.

The map on the wall
Vermeer’s rendering of the map in the background is so precise, that even though we only see a part of it, it can still be identified. It is one of the Pascaarten, printed by Willem Jansz. Blaeu in Amsterdam in the early 17th century. They show the coasts of Europe and Northern Africa and were actually used for navigation on sea. Keep in mind that north is not shown on top, but to the right. For instance, you can discern the Italian peninsula in the lower part, but rotated by 90 degrees.

The globe
The globe on the cupboard is turned to show the Indian Ocean, across which many ships of the Dutch East India Company sailed. It is actually a depiction of a real globe of that time, made around 1600 by the Flemish engraver and cartographer Jodocus Hondius the Elder in Amsterdam. He sold the terrestrial globe together with its celestial pendant, depicted by Vermeer in The Astronomer. The pair of globes forms a cosmological unity, emphasising also the unity of the two paintings.

The Chair and Tiles
As a result of the trading activities of the Dutch East India Company, precious porcelain was imported from China that only the rich could afford. Impressed by the Chinese workmanship, potters from Vermeer’s hometown Delft started to produce a relatively cheap alternative, including tiles with figurative decorations like the ones we see on the skirting board of the geographer’s study room.

The chair with the decorative flower motif on the upholstery was probably manufactured in Delft as well.

Tapestry
The tapestry on the table top forms a push back area for the figure, while masking what would have been a rather large and uninteresting space in the picture.

Vermeer painted little yellow and blue dots on the peaks of the folds.

Seen from a distance, they help create the illusion of sunbeams coming from the left, illuminating the textile surface.

Signature on the cupboard
Curiously, Vermeer signed this work twice. Technical examination has shown that both signatures are authentic. The first is on the door of the cupboard and reads “IVMeer.,”, the initials in monogram.

Signature on the wall
The second signature appears on the wall in the upper right corner of the canvas and also bears the date: “I.Ver Meer / MDCLXVIII”. The picture was painted, one year after the astronomer, in 1669, six years before Vermeer’s death.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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