The Astronomer (1668) by Johannes VermeerOriginal Source: Agence photographique de la Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais
An astronomer is at work in his twilit study.
He rises slightly from his chair...
... and gently spins the celestial globe on his desk with his fingertips.
Vermeer’s choice of subject was not uncommon: many paintings of astronomers were produced in the 17th century. The study of the universe was of vital importance to the shipping trade, the cornerstone of the Dutch Golden Age economy. It also illustrated the scientific progress being made in this period. Starting in the early 18th century, this painting repeatedly changed owner together with The Geographer, leading to the suggestion that Vermeer created the works as counterparts. In any case, the two paintings are a variation on a theme: a scholar at work in his study.
Interest in the universe
The stained glass window lends a warm glow to the light that Vermeer allowed into the room.
The light illuminates the globe on the desk in front of the window.
The burgeoning interest in the earth and universe in this period meant that many merchants and scholars had expensive globes and celestial globes at home. Vermeer painted the instrument with such accuracy that we can even identify its maker: the constellations are by draughtsman and engraver Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612). Globes and celestial globes were always produced in pairs. The counterpart to this celestial globe can be found in the background of Vermeer’s The Geographer.
We can glimpse an astrolabe in front of the globe. This device was used to measure the altitudes (in degrees) of celestial bodies in relation to the horizon. Astrolabes were also used for marine navigation.
In addition to the maker of the globe, the author of the book that lays open on the desk can be identified.
This is an astronomy and geography textbook published by astronomer Adriaen Metius (1571-1635) in 1621. On the opened page of the book, we can see a drawing of an astrolabe, which was designed by Metius himself.
The text on the adjacent page suggests that astronomers should seek ‘inspiration from God’.
Such divine inspiration perhaps resulted in Metius’ astrolabe design. As we have seen, an actual version of the instrument is also on the desk.
Adjustable star map
A curious map with various circles can be seen in the shadows on the wooden cupboard behind the astronomer. This could be a planisphere, an adjustable star map that shows the appearance of the heavens at different times.
A famous scholar?
It has been suggested that the man in the painting is the famous Dutch biologist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). He and Vermeer were both born in Delft. As he grew older, Van Leeuwenhoek became interested in subjects including navigation and astronomy. Portraits of Van Leeuwenhoek also bear some resemblance to the man in this painting. However, it remains uncertain whether he actually posed for Vermeer.
In addition to the instruments, which Vermeer has painted with great accuracy, another interesting detail can be seen in the background. The painting on the wall depicts the baby Moses being saved from the waters of the River Nile. A larger version of the work can be found in Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.
Vermeer probably included this scene here because of Moses’ connection with navigation. As an infant, he floated down a river in a rush basket and later in life, he helped lead the Israelites across the Red Sea.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.