Two world-famous masters of Light born in Delft. Did they ever meet?
Johannes Vermeer and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek; two world-famous names. They were christened a few days after each other in Delft in 1632, and even grew up in the same neighbourhood. At the time, the city was by no means large. Could they have known each other?
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was christened on 4 November 1632 as Thonis Philipszoon, son of Philips Antonyszoon and Margaretha Bel van den Berch. He grew up in the house next to the Leeuwenpoort (Lion’s Gate) in Delft, close to the modern-day Oostpoort. This is probably why he was named Van Leeuwenhoek (Lion’s Corner). Antoni van Leeuwenhoek lived here until he moved to Warmond, where he went to secondary school.
Delft cloth trade
While Van Leeuwenhoek would later achieve fame as ‘the father of microbiology’, he was educated as a bookkeeper with William Davidson, a Scottish cloth merchant in Amsterdam. At the age of 21, he returned to Delft, where he established himself as a cloth merchant. As a silk satin (caffa) weaver, Vermeer’s father was also actively involved in the city’s cloth trade. We do not have any proof, but could the two men have met through this link?
Van Leeuwenhoek became famous for his innovative lenses. His microscopes were significantly better than those of his contemporaries. Lenses had also caught the attention of painters at the time, thanks to the invention of the camera obscura. Johannes Vermeer is often linked to this discovery, although there is no proof of his involvement. Perhaps Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek collaborated on the camera obscura?
Various art historians have suggested that Van Leeuwenhoek may have posed for Vermeer’s The Geographer and The Astronomer. It’s certainly a tantalising notion. Who other than his famous fellow townsman could have inspired Vermeer? The figure in Vermeer’s works does not bear a striking resemblance to the renowned portrait of Van Leeuwenhoek by Jan Verkolje, although Van Leeuwenhoek would have been a lot older in this portrait. Again, this is nothing more than conjecture; we cannot be certain who posed in Vermeer’s works.
Following the death of Johannes Vermeer, the City of Delft appointed Antoni van Leeuwenhoek as the curator of Vermeer’s estate. When debts were revealed, the Vermeer family was declared bankrupt. This is the only evidence that the paths of the two famous Delft residents actually crossed, albeit after Vermeer’s death.
It has often been suggested that the appointment of Van Leeuwenhoek as the curator of Vermeer’s estate offers proof that the two men must have known each other. However, this is not at all certain. Actually, this was not the first time that the City of Delft had appointed Van Leeuwenhoek to curate a townsman’s estate. There is also no evidence that Van Leeuwenhoek was acting as a friend of the family in this matter. In any case, Van Leeuwenhoek did not go along with Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer’s widow, when she tried to pass his work The Art of Painting on to her mother in order to keep it out of Vermeer’s estate. Van Leeuwenhoek recovered the painting and it was auctioned on 15 May 1677.
Two world-famous men spent their youths at the same time in the same small, Dutch city. It is tempting to assume that Johannes Vermeer and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek must have known each other. Numerous art historians have suggested various ways of linking the two men. After all, there are innumerable potential associations.
Up until now, these attempts have yielded little more than romanticised theories. Definitive proof of the possible relationship between Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek is yet to be found.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.