Jan Vermeer The Astronomer
Jan Vermeer was, in his day, one of the most well-known artists in the Netherlands during the seventeenth-century Dutch Golden Age of painting. Unlike his contemporary Rembrandt, Vermeer's works fell of our favour and his works drifted into almost complete obscurity after his death before being rediscovered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today he is a major name in the history of painting, with high-profile retrospectives and feature exhibitions occurring in the world's great art museums. Yet Vermeer produced only a scant number of canvases; forty in total, many of which use the same human models, and almost all are set in the same bare room beside an open window. The Astronomer, painted around 1668, is typical of the artist's highly symbolic, enigmatic and lucid style. Indeed, much of the ambiguity that surrounds his canvases is heightened by the lack of information that is known of Vermeer's life and loves. As with each of his canvases The Astronomer is a remarkable breath of life across vast distances of time, resonating with a startling sense of presence.
The Astronomer is a counterpart to the later work The Geographer in which another type of scientist – yet the same male model - is shown at his craft. The man depicted in both pieces has possibly been traced as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a contemporary of Vermeer. The painting reveals the astronomer clutching passionately at a celestial globe. Open on the table is a book that outlined the proper use of mechanical tools and advocated a knowledge of geometry and piety. On the wall hangs a painting of Moses who was a symbol for both astronomers and geographers because he had acquired all the knowledge of ancient Egypt before leading his people out of those lands. Thus, Vermeer's The Astronomer is a tightly woven web of faith and discovery, focusing on a subject whose craft was then acknowledged to be as fallible or infallible as magic or medicine.
With a sharp awareness of the indelible magic of everyday life, Vermeer's canvases resonate with a vivid sense of self-awareness of self-inquiry. His characters are lost in their personal toil, they have each, for a small time at least, found their vocation and stand considering the profundity of their inner world. At the same time a figure of loneliness and isolation, Vermeer's astronomer is in the process of setting up a dialogue with the heavens while based in a small room, working with humility on his everyday labours.
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