Johannes Vermeer Paints The Astronomer

The most intriguing link is that which lies latent in two paintings by Vermeer.

In 1667 and 1668, a man in his late thirties posed for the painter as he worked on two seemingly associated pictures with scientific themes. These were Vermeer's only two paintings -at least the only two to survive - with solitary male figures as their protagonists; today the pictures are called The Astronomer and The Geographer, though the titles have varied in the past. In 1713 they were auctioned as "A work depicting a Mathematical Artist, by Vander Meer"and "A ditto by the same". When they came up for sale again a few years later they were described as "An Astrologer" and "A repeat" - i.e. another one of the same profession - and were referred to as 'extra choice'. Later still, the 'Geographer' as he is now called was re-identified as '"an Architect" or "a Surveyor". Obviously Vermeer intended the two men to be scholarly types. Although the "Astronomer" has no telescope, he is shown touching a celestial globe, and the 'Geographer' holds a pair of compasses or dividers and has a terrestrial globe nearby; both men have books to band. Indeed, a slightly idealized air permeates the pictures, which were probably commissioned work and thus balanced uneasily between the needs of client and painter. Some of the professional equipment may have been borrowed, including the cross-staff that hangs in deep shadow from the centre post of the window frame in The Geographer; such a staff could be used to measure heights (the height of the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, for instance) or the angle of elevation of the sun. The date of 1669 now seen on The Geographer isn't original, though it is thought to reflect the date the picture was painted. That year, 1669, happens to be when Antony van Leeuwenhoek qualified as a landmeter or surveyor.

The Astronomer is a painting finished about 1668 by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is oil on canvas, 51cm x 45 cm, and is on display at the Louvre, Paris.

Portrayals of scientists were a favourite topic in 17th century Dutch painting[1] and Vermeer oeuvre includes both this astronomer and the slightly later The Geographer. Both are believed to portray the same man, possibly Anton van Leeuwenhoek.

The astronomer's profession is shown by the celestial globe (version by Jodocus Hondius) and the book on the table, Metius's Institutiones Astronomicae Geographicae). Symbolically, the volume is open to Book III, a section advising the astronomer to seek "inspiration from God" and the painting on the wall shows the finding of Moses—Moses may represent knowledge and science ("learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians".

The painting once hung in the home of Edouard de Rothschild, from which it was seized 1940 by the Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzten Gebiete after the German invasion of France. A small swastika was stamped on the back in black ink. The painting was returned to the Rothschilds after the war, and was donated to the Louvre in 1982.