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Painting and astronomy part I, The Astronomer

November 24 2013 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

I lived a few years in the Netherlands, where my appreciation of the Dutch painters from the old masters to the members of the Stijl grew. But the most famous painting that concerns directly astronomy can be admired in Paris.  

Johannes Vermeer has produced a painting called the Astronomer (oil on canvas, 1668) on displayed at the Louvre museum, which together with the Geographer at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, form a pair. Both paintings are signed by the artist, a rare occurrence, and show a scientist working in his cabinet. Representations of working cabinets were a frequent theme in Dutch paintings in the seventeenth century. The name of the subject, an actual astronomer of that time or just a model, is unknown. But the scientific instruments and books depicted in the painting have been indentified. A celestial globe crafted by Jodocus Hondius (1600) and a book in Astronomy and Geography book written by Adriaensz Metius (Institutiones Astronomicae Geographicae, 1621). Three copies of the globe are preserved in collections in the US, Italy, and the Netherlands and a couple of copies of the book are kept in a few US University libraries. Interestingly, little is known about the technical chart seen above the globe. The painting illustrates the mastery of Vermeer in scene composition as our eyes are drawn toward the vanishing point, which is exactly at the geometrical center of the piece. If you are an astronomer with a keen interest in esoteric meanings in pieces of art, you can also try to decipher the allegory behind The Astronomer. I may have a few ideas for a thriller. 

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