The Geographer

Overview of Vermeer’s Clients and Patrons

After reviewing the records which Montias and others have uncovered, two facts become apparent. First, Vermeer’s paintings commanded relatively high prices when compared to many of his contemporaries. The price of six hundred livres that the baker thought reasonable for his painting compares favorably with the six hundred livres that Gerrit Dou (1613-1635) asked from de Monconys  for his Woman in a Window, clearly also a painting with only one figure. Evidently, a painting by Vermeer had the same market value asa work by Dou, whom King Charles II of England had invited to become his court painter in 1660. Dou, one of Rembrandt’s prized students, commanded very high prices for his work throughout his career.

In addition, Vermeer apparently sold his paintings to a very few affluent clients who were capable of recognizing the extraordinary quality of his work, despite the fact that his fame was not nearly as widespread as other some Dutch masters of the time,including Dou or Gerrit Ter Borch. During his life, Vermeer’s fame did not generally reach much farther than nearby The Hague. Nonetheless, word of the artist’s talent was passed from one connoisseur to another in a relatively strict circle. Other than the six occasional but distinguished buyers of a single work, only Van Ruijven could possibly be called a patron. The Delft baker, Pieter Van Buyten, had purchased one painting from the artist while he was still alive and received another two after Vermeer’s early death as payment for a huge debt the artist had accumulated. Three paintings acquired in such circumstances probably don’t establish Van Buyten as a true patron, either.

Apparently, Vermeer’s only real patron was Pieter Van Ruijven. Although the exact nature of Vermeer’s relationship with him is subject to debate, it seems likely he had acquired at least some works directly from Vermeer. In fact, Van Ruijven’s son-in-law Jacob Dissius had in his possession twenty-one Vermeer’s at the time of his death. If we accept Montias’  estimate of the total number of Vermeer’s paintings to be from 44 to 54, this would mean that either Van Ruijven, or members of his family, had bought about one half of Vermeer’s entire artistic output.

Montias himself believes that “the relationship between Van Ruijven and Vermeer went clearly beyond the routine contacts of an artist with a client.” Van Ruijven lent Vermeer money. He witnessed the will of Vermeer’s sister Gertruy in her own house shortly before her death. More significantly, Van Ruijven’s wife, Maria Knuijt, left Vermeer a conditional bequest of five hundred guilders in her will.1 Such a testament was extremely unusual at the time.

However, the distinguished Vermeer specialist, Arthur Wheelock, has expressed reasonable doubts about the exact nature of their relationship. “The hypothesis that Van Ruijven was Vermeer’s patron, although appealing, should be cautiously approached, for no document specifies that Vermeer ever painted for Van Ruijven. Moreover, no source confirms that Van Ruijven himself had any Vermeer paintings in his possession.  While Van Ruijven may have acquired painting from Vermeer, it seems unlikely that he assumed such an important a role in the artist’s life as Montias suggests. Should Van Ruijven had been Vermeer’s patron, one would expect that Balthasar de Monconys  would have visited Van Ruijven himself in 1663, rather than the baker, Hendrick van Buyten, upon hearing that Vermeer had no paintings  at home. Similarly,  the Vermeer enthusiast Pieter Teding van Berckhout would also have made an effort to see the Van Ruijvens’ collection in 1669 on his two visits to Delft.” Wheelock further states: “While it is probable that some of the twenty Vermeer paintings listed in the inventory of 1683 ( the inventory taken after the death of van Ruijven’s daughter) came from Van Ruijven, others may have been acquired by {his daughter} Magdalena, Jacob Dissius (his son-in-law), or his (Jacob’s) father, Abraham Jacobz Dissius, at a sale of twenty-six paintings from Vermeer’s estate held at the Saint Luke’s Guild Hall on 15 May, 1677.” 2

While the precise relationship between Vermeer and van Ruijven may never be known, it is evident that the Van Ruijven family held Vermeer’s work in high regards, having, at one time or the other, assembled a significant part of the master’s oeuvre.’s_clients_and_patrons.html




John Dingler’s Deconstruction: Vermeer’s Geographer




The Geographer

Signature: Signed twice: on the cupboard; and signed and dated 1669 top right. All these inscriptions are dubious.

Provenance: This painting and the Astronomer (Louvre, Paris) are probably companion pieces, in spite of the fact that the sitter is looking to the left in both of them. They share the same provenance until 1778. Thus: sale Rotterdam, 1713; sale Amsterdam, 1720; sale Amsterdam, 1729; sale Amsterdam, 1778. After 1778: in 1785, both paintings were brought to Paris by the art dealer Alexandre Joseph Paillet. He intended to sell them to the French king, but was unsuccessful. Sale Amsterdam, 1797; sale Amsterdam, 1803; collection Alexandre Dumont, Cambrai; collection Isaac Pereire, 1866; sale Pereire, Paris, 1872; collection Max Kann, Paris; sale Demidoff, Palais de San Donato, Florence, 1880; sale Ad. Jos. Bösch, Vienna, 1885. There acquired by the museum.

In view of the fact that the Astronomer and the Geographer are probably pendants, and are the only works in Vermeer’s oeuvre that represent male figures involved in scholarly pursuits, we are treating them conjointly.

Until 1778, they remained together. The signatures and dates on both paintings are questionable, but they must have been executed toward the end of the 1660s.

None of these paintings appears in the sale of 1696, and were therefore commissioned by a patron who was especially interested in astronomy or the celestial sciences. In both paintings, the references to books, scientific instruments, and, in the portrait of the Astronomer, the celestial globe by Jodocus Hondius, are accurately depicted.

The latter painting features on the rear wall a picture representing the scene of the finding of Moses, which has been interpreted as being associated with the advice of divine providence in reaching, in the case of the astronomer, for spiritual guidance.

Although farfetched, it is likely that the content of the painting is associated in some way with the meaning of the work. The sea chart on the wall of the Geographer does not have any religious association. It must be remembered that the rise of interest in scientific research at the time, fostered by the newly established University of Leyden, and philosophers like Descartes, did not have any specific religious associations. Quite to the contrary, the aim was to explore the universe, and simultaneously to further Dutch navigation in its conquest of faraway lands.

Both paintings, with their interiors of scholarly studios and scientific paraphernalia, award Vermeer the opportunity for lightening effects that envelop the scientists in the mystery of an atmosphere that lifts their occupations into the realm of spirituality.




The Geographer



Let us see what Vermeer includes and emphasizes in order to convey not just intellectual activity, but one of those rare moments of insight. The first item to catch one’s eye is the man’s face, in part because the curves of his forehead and nose, highlighted in white, are set off sharply against the dark shadow on the armoire. Vermeer, who is exceptionally skilled at portraying details, has shown hardly any distinctive features on this man’s face – no bone structure, little variation in skin tone. Even his hair is an undistinguished brown, shoved behind his ears to keep it out of the way. The only facial feature that stands out is his eyes, narrowed in concentration, looking toward the light from the window. The absence of detail and the emphasis on the eyes indicate that this is not a portrait of a specific individual, but of a thinker.

The man’s hands, like his face, are brightly illuminated, so that our eyes are also drawn to them. The left hand, resting on a book, bears the weight of his torso: look at the straightness of the arm and the set of his shoulder. In his other hand, the dividers are poised sideways, in mid-air, rather than touching the parchment on the table. It is a fleeting pose, slightly off balance, as if he has stopped to think for a moment and will soon turn back to the parchment to continue his work. In another context the slightly bent posture might signal fatigue or old age, but here, combined with the angle of the head, it quite clearly indicates an abrupt pause while the man weighs a new idea.

Close inspection of the painting has revealed that the Geographer’s head was originally inclined toward the parchment, and the dividers were held vertically, ready to be used. Think of the difference this would have made: we would see a man hard at work, rather than at a moment of insight.

Now look at the Geographer’s robe: plain, simple, unobtrusive. What does it tell us? First, that he is motionless: it falls in straight, simple lines. Next, that he is not overly concerned with his physical appearance: this is functional clothing, not the elaborate apparel often depicted in paintings of this period. (See, for example, the costumes in many Hals and Rembrandt portraits.) But, despite its simplicity, the robe has an important visual function: the “V” shape of the red edging and the white shirt tucked beneath it both draw attention to the Geographer’s face. Cover the red and white, and some of the emphasis on his face is lost.

What about the setting? The chamber in which we see the Geographer is quite clearly his room, his work area: every item in it is for his use, on his scale, within his reach. He is the center of and the purpose for the room. The objects surrounding him are rigorously selected either to tell us more about the man’s actions or to add to the mood.

The dividers show that he is not merely looking at the maps that are scattered around him, but taking measurements for some purpose of his own. The globe, the books on top of the armoire and the map on the wall and floor are condensations of other men’s knowledge, which our Geographer uses in his own inquiries. With the exception of the globe, which catches light from the window and helps move the eye around the painting, the other props – books, armoire, window panes, framed map, chair, small table in foreground – are all strictly rectangular, and painstakingly proportioned and positioned in relation to each other and to the Geographer. They provide an unadorned, almost mathematical setting for the Geographer’s work. Imagine for a moment that the window had richly textured, looped curtains, or that the armoire was elaborately carved, the chair overstuffed, or the map frame elaborately gilt: the emphasis would shift away from the Geographer and what he’s doing.

Also notice the importance of the window. By its presence and by the fact that the man is looking toward it, it marks him as someone who is in touch with the outside world, with reality, not an ivory-tower philosopher. Again, imagine the difference if the man had his back to the window, or if he were in his study late at night, with only candlelight for illumination. But even here, Vermeer has included the bare minimum. We see the clear, bright light flooding in the window, but we cannot see out of it: there is no cityscape or landscape to distract our attention.

Despite the pared-down furnishings, Vermeer’s meticulous depiction of how the light hits different surfaces in the room makes the Geographer’s study a place so full of rich textures and colors that it almost seems luxurious. Look at the shine on the windowsill and the globe, and the creamy smoothness of the parchment spread out in front of the Geographer. Look at the heavy, matte blue fabric of his robe and the crisp white of the shirt beneath. Look at the unobtrusive but intricate tapestry covering the small, stiff chair at the right. Look at the rug in the foreground (at this period it was common to use a rug for a tablecloth), and notice how the red and blue of the Geographer’s robe are echoed in its complex pattern – and how its lush folds have been thrust aside so he can work. Observe how even the plaster wall and bare floor are made decorative by the play of light and shadow, from creamy white to deep brown. These background colors are important: they help set a warm, bright atmosphere. If the dominant colors were chilly shades of blue and the light were pure white rather than yellowish, the room would appear bleak and austere.

It is fascinating to compare The Geographer with Vermeer’s Astronomer [footnote 3], which was probably painted as a pendant to the Geographer. In the Astronomer we see a man with hair and robe very similar to the Geographer’s. He, too, faces a brightly lit window, but instead of gazing out of it, he intently studies a globe, and instead of standing frozen in mid-motion, he is seated with his hand resting on the globe. The sunlight seems less bright, and the colors certainly are – the Astronomer’s robe is deep greenish-blue, and the rug is in subdued blue and green tones. Like the Geographer, the Astronomer is engaged in rigorous intellectual activity, but we see him still gathering information. The Geographer, on the other hand, has gathered his information and has just had the moment of insight when his observations are integrated into a new level of knowledge.

“And if there had been more of the world, they would have reached it,” said Camões, with splendid arrogance, of the fifteenth-century Portuguese explorers [footnote 4]. Vermeer shows us that heroes are not only those who sail uncharted seas, but those who painstakingly integrate the sailors’ findings. Here, in a visual image that we can grasp in an instant, is a man discovering a new fact about reality in a world wide open to his inquiring mind.

I said earlier that the Geographer is about a moment of insight. Is disagreement on this point possible? Yes, but it must be based on a precise observation of the elements of the painting. It’s justifiable to say, for example, “I disagree with your interpretation based on X, which you failed to observe, and Y, which you misinterpreted.” It’s not justifiable to say, “I don’t know why, I just feel you’re off the mark.”

What about your emotional reaction to a work of art? For many of us such a reaction is the only reason we spend more than a minute gazing at a painting. Few things are as satisfying and exciting as seeing a painting that sums up your values, your view of the world. But your emotional reaction is, in fact, a combination of what the painting says and your own memories, thoughts and experiences. If your father was a geographer, you might love Vermeer’s Geographer simply because of that. If the room in the Geographer reminds you of the principal’s office in your high school, on the other hand, you may take an immediate dislike to this painting. But the painting’s theme remains the same, independent of your emotional reaction, be it positive or negative. Discussing your emotional reaction is not the same as discussing the objective meaning of the painting.

It is objective interpretation of art that we must learn to practice if we wish to make representational art dominant once again. Viewers and potential purchasers who can interpret for themselves and are confident in defending their interpretations will be eager to purchase not vacuous abstract garbage but works that have meaning.


This is the story about the painting that I have hand in to Claire:



         It was a beautiful spring morning, the light had reached its higher point, it was the precise moment for Philip to start his labour day, in his eyes we can observe the devotion that he feels for the not well versed but chosen work, the illusion that day after day gets up and recovers his work, but today it is not a common day, no, it is different from those long and endless work days to give form to an idea that later almost personally he will take charge throughout  Delft’s city.


         Today it is an special day for Philip, after many years of effort and hard work finally his day has come, this moment so often dreamed and longed, in occasions so distant and unattainable finally it has come the boss has put his eyes and confidence in, finally today it begins the first day of his new life, an important project for the city where he is  in charge and maximum person in charge without any type of supervision, alone in front of the always been afraid by all the artists of any union, paper in blank, he and his dividers.


         Delf seems to shine today more than ever, it can be because of his immense happiness that makes everything seems in pink colour, the truth is that everything seems to have an special light, everything seems to be more vivacious.


         He is sure of being able to do it, he is sure of his knowledge; he knows that he has learned from the best geographers of Delft, but maybe due to the edginess of whom is known inexperienced, and with the intention of appeasing those nerves that court him for several days when he received such a longed news, this morning unlike others he has gone out for a walk along Delft, its streets are full of people, its buildings, its architectural style they all inspire Philip who does not stop taking notes in his notebook, he had walked there hundreds of times but today he seems to discover the city again the wide parks of green lawn and the beautiful flowers that bloom everywhere make happy at the same time that inspire Philip.


         In the way back to the study Philip was feeling exultant, under his arm he was taking his notebook full of new ideas for his important order, but just before coming to the inner door that gives step to the housing in which last floor Philip has his study, something calls powerfully his attention he walks across a small and narrow street and  stops in front of an old house, of blue windows and yellow tiles, in the front part of the house there were hanging majestically hundreds of handles that were containing beautiful flowers of all kind of colours that were flooding the street with its perfume, it was in that moment when Philip realized that he was just in front of what he had been looking for with so much impetus. This old but beautiful house had the captivation and the own identity that the majestic castles and palaces of the most influential prominent figures of Holland possessed.


         Philip annotates what this house suggests to him, all the beautiful feelings that it inspires to him, these feelings of nostalgia of past times that as the saying goes were always better. 


         Now yes, back home he raises hurriedly the stairs up to the last floor where he has placed his study, he enters in and closes the door with key just in case someone of his servants interrupt the most important moment, that is surrounded at the same time by the best environmental conditions, when the light is in its best moment and in the piece of paper there can be seen all these ideas that Philip gathered during his walk and it is here when the picture catches and shows us in such an spectacular way the precise moment, the precise instant in which so many years of study and dedication, in which so much hard work under the orders of the best experts, so many nights in candle trying to find the exact point that differentiates a good work of a masterpiece, they have found its remuneration.


         He, alone in front of what can catapult him to the most absolute success or that can destroy him so deeply that any of those persons that crosses hurriedly Delft’s streets notices it, they won’t even worry about him, bearing in mind always all this ideas and pressures that this, his first work in solitary, means he begins to outline the first lines helped with his dividers from his Delft’s luminous study that reflects as his face does the illusion and devotion for the well done work.


         Immersed in his ideas he cannot help drawing, this one not, this one either, none seems to be at the level of his expectations, and goes on drawing and rejecting ideas and more ideas and it is in that precise instant when he realizes that it is not easy at all to play the work under which he has always been supervised alone, this worry is reflected in his face and in his stare in the piece of paper where the images happen without finding the point that differentiates the good job from a masterpiece.

6 responses to “The Geographer

  1. The nature of Vermeer was a good thought in the first sentence, but temperate as the climate may have been for your geographer in a later paragraph, the word TEMPERANCE is the perfect theme for all of Vermeer’s genre paintings.
    The symbolism in all of these works begged a temperate or moderate lifestyle and behavior. This is pictured, in one painting,”Girl With a Wineglass” (as she drunkenly smiles at the viewer) by the female depiction on the window glass of NEMESIS the goddess of temperance with the symbols of a bridle in one hand and a square in the other.
    The Geographer, like the Astronomer, are misnomers and they are “portraits” of Vermeer. He, like his friend Terborch, another genius, used compass dividers as geometric tools of alignment to accomplish additional visual structure and elements which reveal the narrative of the content, augmenting the usual symbols. This assertion is not possible to prove here.
    Let me say, for your interest, that Terborch painted “the Messenger”, which included a portrait of his student, Netcher, as a soldier writing a love-letter. The messenger, with the trumpet, waits to take the letter to the Maid. If one takes the head of this messenger, reverses or mirrors it and places it, by the magic of the computer, beside the head of the GEOGRAPHER, the resemblance is striking if one allows for the differences between a portraitist, like Terborch, and Vermeer who was not specialized to that area. The nose, the chin, the hair – now, who does the overweight gent with the moustache in Girl With a Wineglass resemble? Could it be Gerard Ter Borch?!

  2. Pingback: The Astronomer (1668, Paris, Louvre) « Johannes Vermeer’s influence and inspiration·

  3. Sorry. The Terborch painting referred to above, which has a messenger as a subject is called THE DISPATCH from the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). The messenger depicted is very likely VERMEER as I indicated. The Geographer and the Astronomer are self-portraits. The Astronomer reveals the birth month of the painter on the celestial globe by the scales of Libra located centrally. His thumb, a phallic symbol, is placed on Aquarius , The Waterbearer, which aligns itself to, not only the painting at the back wall – Moses (means “taken from the water”), but with the name of the artist – VERMEER, which means “of the LAKE”.

  4. Sorry. The DISPATCH by Terborch is at the Philadelphia museum and not the DIA. The facts of my revelation of Vermeer as the Messenger, nevertheless, are compelling. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

  5. COPIED from The Astronomer for the GEOGRAPHER:

    Analysis of Vermeer’s Orthogonals and Other Visual Aids in the ASTRONOMER:

    Often, Vermeer used alignments of straight lines as tactical directionals to strengthen the composition and to use orthogonals as means for ends other than the perspective of rooms and objects. The converging orthogonal lines of The Milkmaid, for example, do not find a single point on a horizon line, but are scattered like buckshot behind her right arm. The Luteplayer has similar problems with the lines of the window glass frames. One of those lines is askew. As in The Glass of Wine, verticals and lines off the vertical are alternated: window to wall, to picture frame, to chair legs, in a tottering rhythm, I think, to suggest inebriation in the young woman being seduced. This back-handed disrespect of our seeing (conscious perceptions), as compared to an abiding respect for our brains capacity to SEE (unconsciously and subliminally, if I can use those terms in reference to a seventeenth century painter) is evident in the purposeful adjusting of these straight lines, and many other aspects of his painting. The Astronomer is a case in point.
    It is a simple procedure to use a PAINT program; to acquire a copy of the Astronomer painting and, with as much accuracy as the eye and hand permit, to draw and extend straight lines of a visible colour along the lines Vermeer provides. In the Astronomer, some of the orthogonals will converge to a point on the sleeve of the extended right arm, which is the proper vanishing point for the Astronomer. Some will not. A number of orthogonals, from the top of the window, will instead go to a point in the centre of the “X” in the date (1668) painted in Roman numerals on the door of his closet. The line extended from the carved capital shape, in front of the stained glass’s central circle, meet at the tip of the man’s middle finger. Whereas, the window pane divider, beside this capital (two lines), extends to the tip of the upraised index finger at the globe. The window’s ledge has a carved edge, three lines of which converge at the tip of the THUMB at its resting point on the globe.
    The closet has a carved top on which books are stored. The orthogonal of this cornich angles down the side of the cupboard toward the vanishing point of the perspective, but misses quite considerably to the left and touches the tip of the index finger of his left hand.
    The picture on the wall of Pharoah’s daughter in which his (Moses) mother holds Moses, aside from its symbolism is used by Vermeer as a directional device. The cross-corner angle line from top right to bottom left touches the head of the standing figure and the side of the maid seated by the water. Extending the line, it is found to follow the direction of the left upper arm of the astronomer giving it visual strength. The astronomer’s chair orthogonals all meet at the vanishing point, except one. The top line of the back of the chair is significantly misaligned along the extended right arm to the globe and, NOT so significantly to the spot where the FOX constellation was later found.

    August 30, 2009 at 10:07 am
    Vermeer’s straight lines in the Astronomer are found to be inconspicuous arrows to reveal points of particular interest requiring interpretation in the context of the work. There are a few more of note. From above, a line on each side of the window curtain extend on their angles almost in parallel. The right one touches the globe at its top/centre. Both lines, if extended farther, lie on either side of the scales of Libra at the mid-bottom and centre of the globe. A book (Bible?), with red died pages, lies angled at the left of the globe. The bottom line of this book extends to the scales and precisely to a light POINTILLE between the two pans of the scales, which is on the vertical midline of the globe. This pointille, like the pointille of the ear of the “Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window”, is a “constantia” (pivot) point for dividers or a compasses. A straigt line, extended from the Pie shape in the large circle of the Astronomer’s (astrologer’s) chart, goes to the astronomer’s forehead at the hairline. The bottom Horizontal line of the “birthchart”, (as I refer to chart on the closet), will extend to the paintings right edge. The paintings edge has cropped the painting-within-a-painting at the penis of the Moses child. The horizontal line from the birthchart does likewise. This, I propose is a secondary constantia point. A third pivot point is found in the centre of the “X” of the date on the closet door.
    As previously posited, the Scales of Libra, as a birthdate of the Astronomer, are indicated by the THUMB at the onset of Aquarius, the point of a conception and the beginning of a nine month gestation period. The baby Moses, “taken from the water”, as his name translates, would relate to the name, VERMEER, meaning “of the lake” or “from the lake”. Aquarius is the “water-bearer” in whose sky the Pheonix flies. (If Leewuenhoek is considered a “Libra” being born October 24, and baptised November 6th, 1632, then Vermeer is more so, being baptised on October 31st.) This Astronomer is the Pheonix rising! Go to the GEOGRAPHER and use his dividers as a key for the Astronomer. Insert the key into the pointille of the Scales. The pointille between the scales will add circles to the straight lines and credibility to the hypothesis of the Scales as a birth indicator. Scribe its “labore” point from both radii of the large circle on the birthchart – at the points where the radii “PIE” lines meet the circumference of the circle. Scribe one line from the tip of the bottom radius past the tip of the Astronomer’s nose and watch as the circle is drawn past his left hand and through the carpet. Then, the other endpoint of the top radii from the pie will pass at the hairline of his forehead at which the other radii’s straight line extension pointed in my earlier statement. Continue and mark where the line passes (the face and the white shirt, for instance). Start again, clock-wise from the top left corner of the birthchart, glancing off the circle’s circumference and around to his earlobe’s edge and highlight. Start, again, at the tip of the left radius of the little circle, this time, that is well-lit. Draw to the back edge of his ear and continue down low, to the tip of a leaf – one of two – on the carpet hanging. Then scribe from the chart’s right corner to the highlight at the crown of his head continuing to the tip of the other leaf at the bottom. Other concentric circles, involving his hands, may be scribed using the pivot of the Scales.
    Now, change the constantia point to the middle of the “X” in the date on the door and place the labore point of the dividers at the lower radius point on the large circle’s circumference. Draw the new circle to his eye; and to his thumb and finger tips!
    The key has opened the lock. The Geographer and the Astronomer are VERMEER!

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