The Astronomer (2)

“The Astronomer” (De Astronoom) is the 28th painting by the Dutch Johannes Vermeer.  It was painted in 1668 after “The Mistress and Maid” and before “The Geographer”. As all the paintings – or most of them- by Vermeer, it was oil on canvas. Its dimensions are 50 x 45cm and now it can be seen in the Louvre Museum (Musée du Louvre).

This painting is a portrait of a scientist which was a favourite topic in 17th century Dutch painting. None of the models for his paintings has been identified, but it is believed that most of them were members from his own family – his wife or eldest daughter. There is a similarity between the man in “The Astronomer” and the man in “The Geographer”; and some critics and historians point out that there a resemblance between the man in these two paintings and the man appearing in “The Music Lesson”. At the same time, Vermeer himself could be the man in these paintings, there was a self-portrait of Vermeer, though now it is lost. The most likely candidate was Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, an expert lens maker who lived a few blocks from Vermeer and who could have worked with him to build the famous camera obscura.

In the composition, two different realities are combined. Those realities are the perspective construction, which creates a sense of depth, and the painting’s rectangular

flatness which is called picture plane. Moreover, the geometrical center of the painting (yellow lines) and the vanishing point (grey lines) meet on the same point, which is the centre of the picture. However, this effect is not fortuitous because this diagram is also used in some of his earlier works, for instance “Woman Holding a Balance.”

There are some details that are worth to be mentioned. One of them is the signature and the date. The authenticity of this little information has been questioned by historians and critics until 1997. Different experiments and researches have proved the date and the signature to be really done by Vermeer. This is one of the few canvases signed by him.

Another detail is the planisphere which is a star chart in the form of two disks that rotate on a common pivot. It can be adjusted to display the visible stars for any time and date. On the table, it is possible to find a book. “Historian James A.Welu was able to identify the book as the 1621 second edition of a work by Adriaan Metius, Institutiones Astronomicae et Geographicae.” The book was recommended for “shippers and pilots” and included “short and clear instructions for the art of navigation.”

Other important feature of this painting is the astrolabe. It “is an instrument used by classical astronomers and astrologers. It was used to locate and predict the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars.” It has been suggested that in Vermeer’s Astronomer, the astrolabe may mean man’s need to chart his course in life through logic and measurement. The hand of this model there is celestial globe, the terrestrial one is found in “The Geographer”. Vermeer painted one made by Jodocus Hondius. This globe presents the complex forms of the constellations, some of which can be made out by the artist. Globes of this period were always produced and sold in pairs.

Windows and light are important elements in Vermeer’s works. The window in “The Astronomer” looks similar to the one found in “The Geographer” but it presents part of a colored decorative stem. Far less light enters “The Astronomer’s” than “The Geographer’s” room “because the window’s second casement is closed” so the incoming light is concentrated on the contemplative scholar and the celestial globe giving a sense of mystery.

Finally, as in many of Vermeer’s works, there is another painting in “The Astronomer. The choice of this particular painting-within-a-painting, “The Acts of the Apostles” which represents Moses in the bull rushes, was not fortuitous:

  • Moses was described “learned in all the wisdom of Egypt.”
  • He was also the patron saint of a type of science which returned to old sources of wisdom in the ancient civilizations.
  • Moses also had a unique significance for the Dutch people since they considered the United Provinces – Netherlands – a kind of new Israel.

The same painting appears in Vermeer’s late Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.


THE ASTRONOMER by Johannes Vermeer from Essential Vermeer, retrieved 2010, May 12, 16:32

The Astronomer (Vermeer) from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, retrieved 2010, May 12, 17:50

Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, retrieved 2010, May 12, 18:45

“…Understanding The Astronomer” from Essential Vermeer, retrieved 2010, May 13, 15:24

Johannes [Jan] Vermeer . The Astronomer – 1632-1675 – 1668 – Cover Story from BNET, retrieved 2010, May 13, 16:00

2 responses to “The Astronomer (2)

  1. Pingback: The Astronomer « Johannes Vermeer’s influence and inspiration·

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