Vermeer and his obsession with cartography

James A. Welu discusses the artist’s “mania for maps”

By Google Arts & Culture

Officer and Laughing Girl Officer and Laughing Girl (ca. 1657) by Johannes VermeerThe Frick Collection

The maps and globes in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer have long intrigued scholars. In 1865, Théophile Thoré-Bürger, who pioneered the rediscovery of the Dutch master, commented on what he called Vermeer’s “mania for maps”. Ever since, Vermeer’s depictions of maps and globes have come to be regarded as the prime illustration of the popularity that cartography enjoyed in the Netherlands during its Golden Age

Spurred by global exploration and trade, the Dutch led the world in mapmaking throughout the 17th century. Often combining geography with a wealth of ornamentation, Dutch publishers produced some of the most decorative examples in the history of mapmaking. While many artists at this time included maps in their paintings, no one captured them with greater detail and accuracy than Vermeer. In fact, all of the maps and globes Vermeer depicted can be identified.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft 1632–1675 Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Officer and a Laughing Girl, a painting completed early in Vermeer’s career, a prominently positioned map representing Holland and West Friesland shows how effective wall maps were in spreading geographical knowledge while adding to the décor of a simple Dutch interior. The same map appears in two other paintings by Vermeer including Young Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, where the map, now bathed in golden tones, adds to the intimacy of the scene.

In the 17th century the decorative use of maps became so popular that many publishers began reissuing old maps specifically for this purpose. They often acquired, from earlier mapmakers, the copper plates used to print maps and simply modernized their decorative elements without always updating the geographical contents. Such a map appears in Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Jug. This map of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands includes decorative cartouches from different periods.

Young Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662–63) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vermeer did not limit himself to maps of the Netherlands as we see in his Lady with a Lute, where a large map of Europe covers much of the back wall. This map, first published by Jodocus Hondius in 1613, was reprinted by Joan Blaeu in 1659. In this case, Blaeu made no changes to the map and only replaced the name of Hondius with his own, another example of responding to a growing market for decorative wall maps.

The Art of Painting (1666/1668) by Jan VermeerKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

The largest and most ornate of all the maps depicted by Vermeer appears in his most ambitious composition, The Art of Painting. Here the map adorns a room that serves as an artist’s studio. Through his skillful handling of light, Vermeer gives substance to the map’s physical qualities. Here we can almost feel the map’s cracked and varnished surface and sense its weight as it pulls down on its two tiny supports.

At the same time, we can still distinguish the map’s decorative and geographical contents, all rendered in convincing detail. The map depicts the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands. Its Latin title band at the top includes the name of the publisher: Claes Jansz. Visscher. Visscher’s elaborate map includes, at the bottom, a text and on the sides, panoramic views of the most important towns and courts of the Netherlands. Additional elements like these were generally printed separately from the maps themselves. According to a 17th-century catalogue advertising cartographic material, wall maps were available “with or without their ornamentation”. They were, in effect, a made-to-order work of art. While variations of Visscher’s map appear in other Dutch paintings, the one used by Vermeer is the most elaborate format known. And while no complete example exists today, we can still appreciate its original appearance thanks to Vermeer’s detailed depiction of it.

Allegory of the Catholic Faith (ca. 1670-72) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The cartographic objects in Vermeer’s paintings often add to the meaning of his works. For example, when Vermeer used the Visscher map in The Art of Painting, the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands were no longer a united territory, making the map a fitting background for the young woman who stands in front of it and represents Clio, the Muse of History.

One work in which we can be certain Vermeer intended a cartographic object to have symbolic significance – this time a globe – is his Allegory of Faith. Here the globe serves as one of the main objects connected to a figure symbolizing Faith. According to Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, Faith is represented as a woman “having the world under her feet” – a world that for Vermeer was none other than an original terrestrial globe. Although the globe appears at a considerable distance from the viewer, its contents are still legible. It is the second edition (1618) of a globe first published in 1600 by Jodocus Hondius.

The Geographer (1669) by Johanes VermeerStädel Museum

Vermeer was also fascinated by the scientific use of cartographic material as seen in a pair of paintings appropriately titled The Geographer and The Astronomer. In The Geographer, a young professional, surrounded by cartographic material, pauses in his work to gaze out a window. Prominently positioned on the cabinet at the back of the room is the same terrestrial globe that appears in the Allegory of Faith. Here juxtaposed with an assortment of books, the globe is treated as a scientific instrument, its decorative cartouches now turned to the side. Facing us instead is the Indian Ocean, a part of the world by then well known to the Dutch. The framed sea chart on the back wall is a type of map used to navigate the coasts of Europe. A 17th-century catalogue points out that such charts, which were “made according to very exact drawing,” were also “very useful for framing and hanging up.”

The Astronomer (1668) by Johannes VermeerOriginal Source: Agence photographique de la Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais

In contrast to The Geographer, the man in The Astronomer draws our attention to the heavens by focusing on a dramatically-lighted celestial globe. This colorful sphere representing the various constellations was produced by Jodocus Hondius as a pendant to his terrestrial globe. The open book to which the astronomer refers can also be identified. It is the 1621 edition of Adriaen Metius’ basic volume on astronomy and geography opened to chapter III, “On the Investigation or Observation of the Stars”. Vermeer’s selection and careful arrangement of cartographic objects in his Geographer and Astronomer paintings reinforces the pendant relationship of these two works, capturing the wonder and excitement connected with the use of maps and globes during this period.

Whether it be his depictions of everyday life or a full-fledged allegory, Vermeer’s interior scenes provide a valuable window onto 17th century Netherlands and one of the finest records of the great age of Dutch cartography.

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