VERMEER, Johannes
(b. 1632, Delft, d. 1675, Delft)

The Astronomer

c. 1668
Oil on canvas, 50 x 45 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Signature: Signed and dated 668 on the cupboard (spurious, later additions).

Provenance: This painting and the Geographer (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) 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. Collection Jean-Etienne Fiseau; art dealer Lebrun, Paris; brought to Paris in 1785; sale Amsterdam, 1797; sale Amsterdam, 1800; sale Paris, 1881; collection Alphonse de Rothschild, Paris, 1888; collection Edouard de Rothschild. Abducted by Hitler during World War II. Restored to owner in 1945. Acquired by Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1983.

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.