Today is the anniversary of the birth of Galileo Galilei so this week’s painting is The Astronomer, by Johannes Vermeer. A lightly idealised depiction of a seventeenth-century scientist, rapt in his study of the heavens, the work was painted late in Vermeer’s life, probably some time towards the end of the 1660s. It can be seen in the Louvre, in Paris.
This painting is unusual, in Vermeer’s oeuvre, in having a male protagonist. So many of his other pictures show women or girls in interiors that the artist may be said to resemble the Dutch genre painter satirised in Gerald de Lairesse’s Schilderboek who “trapped by his desire clings to damsels, painting nothing else all his life.” The picture reproduced here relates closely to another uncharacteristic work by Vermeer on the similar theme of The Geographer, which suggests that they were intended to constitute a pair.
The same model appears in both paintings, so it is possible that the individual in question commissioned both works as semi-allegorical portraits designed to illustrate the breadth of his learning. The most frequently proposed candidate is the cloth merchant and amateur scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who would have been about the same age as the man shown in the picture reproduced here, and whose only surviving likeness – preserved in a contemporary engraving – shows a face not wildly dissimilar to that of the astronomer. Van Leeuwenhoek was Vermeer’s exact contemporary and lived in the same city, Delft. Speculation that they may have known each other is strengthened by the fact that van Leeuwenhoek played a part in sorting out Vermeer’s tangled financial affairs after the painter’s death. Both men shared an interest in optics, and in looking at the world through lenses. Vermeer’s highly original method, of representing appearances purely in terms of the modulations of light and tone, was almost certainly inspired by the experience of looking at the images in a camera obscura (although he could not have used such a device to create his works, contrary to a common misconception). For his part, van Leeuwenhoek ground his own lenses and created some of the earliest effective microscopes. He is thought to have been the first man to study his own spermatozoa through a magnifying lens, justifying himself to a correspondent with the touchingly confessional remark that “What I investigate is only what, without sinfully defiling myself, remains as a residue after conjugal coitus.”
The idea that The Astronomer represents van Leeuwenhoek by Vermeer is appealing partly because it seems so neat, linking one cool observer of reality with another and suggesting a community of intention between painter and microscopist – two pioneers of the empirical method in the age of scientific discovery inaugurated by Galileo. But the idea remains pure speculation. Besides, the conception of “science” in Vermeer’s time was clouded by all kinds of allegorical and religious ideas that had nothing to do with the development of experimental maethod. The picture certainly reflects some of these ideas; so regardless of who actually posed for the figure of The Astronomer, it is not quite the straightforward document of intellectual avant-gardism that some would wish it to be.
The theme of the scholar in his study goes back to the Renaissance, when a number of artists, including Jan van Eyck, Antonello da Messina and Albrecht Durer, depicted the church father St Jerome at work on his translation of the Bible. Vermeer’s scholar is plainly a modern, a man of the seventeenth century. The celestial globe which he studies has been identified as one created in 1618 by the Amsterdam humanist and mapmaker Jodocus Hondius, while the scientific text that lies open on the table before him is the second edition of Adriaan Metius’s Institutiones Astronomicae Geographicae. But his scholarship is still presented – like that of St Jerome – as a spiritual and religious quest for enlightenment. Vermeer has emphasised the astronomer’s hands, brightly lit against surrounding shadows, which suggests that their gesture carries a certain significance. With his left hand he points towards the ground while with his right he reaches out as if to encompass the celestial sphere. A moral implication may be inferred. The knowledge which scholars and scientists acquire here on earth will lead them closer to the heavens, if they consider its true spiritual implications. This was a commonplace of seventeenth-century thought.
Vermeer’s painting enshrines a mystical rather than a coolly empirical conception of intellectual endeavour. This is symbolically underlined by a detail in the background, namely the paintingg that hangs on the wall behind the astronomer. This picture within the picture is artfully blurred but its subject has been established as The Finding of Moses. Moses was closely associated with science in the seventeenth century, on the basis of a passage in the Acts of the Apostles (7:22) which describes him as “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”. Certain humanists of the time even spoke of “Mosaic” science, which had nothing to do with experimentation or calculation but which sought wisdom in the study of ancient Egypt and other pre-classical civilisations, and in a corpus of occult and hermetic texts.
Hints of such mystical and mysterious beliefs have also worked themselves into the very texture of Vermeer’s painting, flooded as it is by an otherworldly light, which suffuses the scene and seems almost to materialise as pearls or dots of illumination where it strikes the celestial globe and the heavy swag of carpet rucked up at the edge of the table. Vermeer’s scholar is an accomplished astronomer and mathematician but he is not a scientist in the modern sense. He is a seer, an illuminatus.