Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723)
June 19, 2008
. . . my work, which I’ve done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men. And therewithal, whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (Letter of June 12, 1716)
He was a friend of the painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), and the microscope may have inspired Dutch artists of the period in their endeavors to reproduce the surface textures of cloth, insects, fur, feathers, glass, and mirrors.
Did Antonie van Leeuwenhoek model for Vermeer’s paintings?
The Geographer (detail)
The Astronomer (detail)
Portrait of Leeuwenhoek(detail) by J. Verkolje
Many critics have asked if the young men who appear in The Geographer and The Astronomer (which seem to be the same man) represent Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. A detail of J. Verkolje’s portrait (above 3rd picture) of the scientist dates 1668 when he was 54 years of age. If Van Leeuwenhoek did indeed pose in Vermeer’s paintings, he would have done so when he was approximately 32 seeing that the two paintings are generally dated near 1668.
Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Painting in the Washington National Gallery and noted Vermeer expert, believes that not only did Van Leeuwenhoek sit for Vermeer’s two paintings but that they may have even been commissioned by the scientist himself. On the other hand, John Michael Montias, noted Vermeer expert and author of Vermeer and his Milieu, sees no particular resemblance between “the elegant, distinguished-looking scholars portrayed in The Astronomer and The Geographer and the course- featured Van Leeuwenhoek.” In Verkolje’s portrait, Van Leeuwenhoek has a nose similar to Vermeer’s man but his face seems broader although this discrepancy could be explained by the difference in age.