May 21, 2010
The Geographer (der geograaf) is one of the few paintings in which Vermeer takes a man as the central and the only figure. This is an indoor scene from Vermeer to which we are accustomed. However, this is a potent image of the meditation and work of the scholar; it is the power of the human reason, the spirit of the enlightenment in a nutshell. This image was painted between 1668 and 1669.
It is precisely the energy that the main figure denotes in its pose one of the main differences with other paintings, works with female protagonists, in which the characters adopt a more passive or relaxed attitude. The Geographer seems to be focused on his ideas, probably he is diving into his thoughts about the “new” world that men were discovering by that time. We cannot forget that the real measures of the planet were being described, we might say they started to make correct guesses about the real dimensions of earth and therefore explorers and geographers were playing a vital role regarding the expansion of the recently independent Dutch empire.
A new scope for the human activity was already set, the aims of conquering every possible land and of establishing new trade routes were an important part of the Dutch nation, which was considered one of the wealthiest countries by that time. Since the year 1641 and for more than a century, only dutch ships were allowed to enter Japan and to commerce with them, for this reason and apart from the many colonies they have. The Empire was in a frank expansion and the flourishing middle class was the leading group in the country the main activity and source of the wealth were, as we have suggested, trade.
One of the first elements interpreted as an allegory of the greatness of the Dutch traders is the robe that the geographer is wearing. This garment was alien to europeans, it is in fact an imperial kimono; these were given as presents to the Dutch sailors who covered the route to Japan and they were a clearly distinctive mark of elegance and importance. Vermeer could have introduced this element as both a recognition for the activity of the mapmaker in his homeland and as symbol of national pride (Vermeer national pride is often identified within various elements inside his paintings). Together with the map, the kimono and the tools we find a terrestrial globe (showing the indian ocean, as some critics say), all these elements pay a complete homage to the local hegemony of the trading world.
Now, facing the picture, we cannot avoid to start to look at it from left to right, the same as if we were reading. It is commonly maintained that western paints are read as writings, that could be a general feature of the Western domination of the world. The starting point is the curtain even thought it does not draw much attention on it. It is used as a repoussoir, a device used commonly in two dimensional art. So then, if we departure from the curtain our eyes follow inexorably the line drawn by the scrolls in which the geographer depicts his knowledge of the world. The path is also determined by the sunbeams which find the vehicle in the Bright color of the paper. After the scrolls, light is driven towards the measuring dividers (the tool is not in a natural position due to artistic reasons) from where spreads all over the picture. Is this the point in which our eyes start to analyze the scene as a whole and we will focus on a different element depending on the direction we follow from the starting point of the dividers. Thus, our glance is driven first to the geographer’s head, there it was discovered with a deeper analysis of the canvas that the position of his head was rectified, the evidences show that it was pointing downwards in the first version but latter, it may be a response to the incidence of the light in the scene, it was painted looking forward. With this new position the picture confers the scholar a more mystic air and the light reflects directly on his absent face. There are also many hidden elements in the picture that I deliberately omitted, I consider that those are not so relevant to this specific picture as they are recurrent corrections or changes in Vermeer’s paintings.