Jan Vermeer van Delft’s The Astronomer accurately reflects society’s fascination with the celestial realm in the 17th century. While Vermeer is notorious for paintings of the mundane, the historical backdrop of this masterpiece is anything but. Much like the muse of his oeuvre, the academics of his century were occupied with scientific findings, defining what we now know to be the Scientific Revolution.

Heavily representing devotion to one’s craft, The Astronomer showcases a genius in his true environment. This work of art bears the touchstones of Vermeer classics: a sense of introspection, a solitary subject, and a solemn environment amid a small room. For decades now, Vermeer’s masterpiece has graced the halls of the Musee de Louvre in Paris.

Symbolism in The Astronomer

 

Renowned for his masterful use of light, Vermeer paints his astronomer working in front of a windowsill, illuminated by rays of sunshine seeping through the panes. As he sits perched on his desk, his hands trace a globe while his face bears an expression of a profound moment of enlightenment. At the foot of the globe sits an astrolabe, on the walls, a star map, and beside it, a painting of the baby Moses floating on the waters of the Nile River in Egypt.

The Astronomer gives off an atmosphere of humility and loneliness, a trait shared by all of Vermeer’s paintings. Bathed in soft light and cool hues, the sunlight shining through the stained glass brings the viewer’s focus to the globe. 

This, for the astronomer, is his muse–the only object worthy of his intellect. Vermeer paid an extreme amount of attention to this detail: a closer look would reveal constellations that were originally made by Jodocus Hondius, another famous artist. Given the growing interest in the universe at the time, globes similar to the one in the painting were staples in the homes of merchants and scholars.

While the celestial globe is an obvious homage to his astronomer’s profession, the open book pays reference to Adriaen Metius’s volume on astronomy, wherein the page commands the astronomer to seek so-called “inspiration” from the Biblical God.

On the other hand, the painting directly behind him makes another reference to the Divine. Many experts speculate that the image of Moses was included as a symbol for navigation, owing to the Biblical tale of the child Moses floating down the river before he was picked up by Egyptian Royalty. Others, however, opine that Moses represents knowledge, after the verse in the Acts of the Apostles describing him as “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.”

In the end, all these images point to one thing: Vermeer did not separate science and God but in fact, attributed knowledge to the divine.

 

The Identity of the Astronomer

“The Astronomer c. 1668” by Jan Vermeer Van Delft

Marvel at the bridge between art and science – get yourself a copy of The Astronomer today.

Many have ventured a guess as to Vermeer’s muse, the astronomer himself. 

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a famous Dutch biologist often deemed the father of microbiology, is the most famous bet, due to his resemblance to the man in the painting. 

Interestingly, the astronomer in this painting looks eerily similar to the subject of Vermeer’s other painting, The Geographer. In both pieces, Vermeer illustrates solitary men deeply engaged in their studies. It's believed that the same individual, van Leeuwenhoek, posed for both paintings. 

This theory is based on the similar facial features of the subjects, characterized by sharp, intelligent expressions. Van Leeuwenhoek, a contemporary of Vermeer, was a self-taught scientist dedicated to scientific discoveries, making him an apt muse for these works.

Despite this, however, nothing has been confirmed. Due to the growing interest in the sciences during this period, it’s safe to assume that The Astronomer – as well as The Geographer – represents any other scholar during a moment of intense study.

 

The Setting

 

The setting in The Astronomer is also similar to The Geographer, suggesting they depict the same room and highlighting Vermeer’s attention to detail.

Although there are minor differences, like the stained-glass window or the table’s arrangement, the overall space remains consistent. This continuity emphasizes the interconnectedness of the scientific disciplines portrayed. Both paintings highlight essential tools for their respective sciences, underscoring human curiosity and intellectual ambition.

Regardless, Vermeer’s portrayal of these scientists goes beyond mere representation – it celebrates the human spirit’s relentless drive to explore and understand both the heavens and the earth. The detailed craftsmanship, interplay of light and shadow, and contemplative expressions invite viewers into moments of profound reflection and discovery.

Through The Astronomer, Vermeer creates a timeless dialogue between art and science, illustrating that the pursuit of knowledge, whether celestial or terrestrial, is an enduring endeavor defining the human experience. This remains a tribute to the Age of Enlightenment and the ongoing quest for understanding that continues to inspire us today.