When I viewed this painting, The Astronomer, at the Louvre in Paris, I was surprised at how small it was, only 19 3/8″ x 17 3/4″ (50 x 45 cm). For some reason, I always assumed Vermeer’s paintings were as large as his iconically-large reputation.
This painting captures the mood of the Baroque era with its incredible detail and rich subject matter by incorporating paintings on the wall, rich clothing, and books on the desk. Vermeer has brought in these props to show the subject is a man of wealth.
The magic of so many of Vermeer’s paintings is the light coming from the only window, leading the viewer’s eye straight to the subject, as the scene is set in an otherwise dark room.
What I find so interesting about the subject matter is a learned man is shown examining the known world in the 1600’s on a round surface — a globe — instead of a flat one. Even in ancient times, sailors knew the earth was round, and Columbus set sail on his journey counting on this fact. But exactly HOW the earth looked, with its oceans and land masses, was still open for a lot of discovery. How fascinating must that have been for men of science at that time in the dawning of a new era of scientific thought!
As was common in the Baroque era, Vermeer did not paint this as a portrait, per se. He portrayed an educated man pursuing his profession as an astronomer. With a book open on his desk, he reaches for the globe, perhaps realizing mankind just made some great discovery. Some art historians believe the painting was either of or inspired by Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who was a contemporary of Vermeer. Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope, and also was a master at astronomy and navigation. Vermeer’s painting reflects this Renaissance man’s zeal for science.
This masterpiece of the Baroque era so ably captures man’s fascination with the complexities of world around us. It is true of then and it is true of now. It is proof that current events make for good art.