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Jan Vermeer - The Geographer

by Thyra Guenther-Lübbers

Before us we see a rather unusual for Johannes Vermeer picture theme. The small œuvre of the self-taught painter otherwise features mainly female figures in a domestic setting, depicted for example reading a letter or pouring milk. The unusual choice of motif for the artist, as well as the fact that there is a companion piece to this work in the Louvre entitled "The Astronomer", raises the question of a patron. Since the male figures in both paintings are very similar, however, a portrait work can be ruled out.

The painting, true to the title, shows a geographer in a housecoat, who, in the midst of an allegorical world of science, seems to be absorbed in his work. The male figure, on whom a ray of sunlight falls through a window located on the left edge of the picture from the viewer, forms the center of the picture. The light seems to literally illuminate the scientist and can therefore also be interpreted as the light of knowledge. While the image does not reveal any clear insight, it conveys the sharpened mind as well as the passion for science. This is symbolized here by various instruments, such as a compass, a protractor, a St. John's staff, which serves the astronomical angle measurement or a globe. The globe has a special feature. Difficult for the viewer to see, Vermeer has turned it so that the Indian Ocean is visible. The discovery of this and thus the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was and is a highlight in geographic research and therefore by Vermeer here in a small hidden detail again taken up. In addition, the Netherlands was a leader in the production of globes in the 17th century. In addition to the globe, however, the maps on the table and on the wall refer on the one hand to scientific activity and on the other hand to the zeitgeist of the Netherlands in the 17th century. For in the course of the so-called "golden age", in which the Netherlands freed itself from the foreign rule of Spain, it experienced an economic and cultural blossoming, which also included an increase in interest in science and its importance.

The overall impression of the interior suggests an elevated status of the geographer. In addition, the drapery and the stool in the foreground of the picture form a barrier to the viewer, which subtly indicates that the picture was only to be understood by an initiated, intellectual circle of connoisseurs, in which the possible client or buyer is also to be located.

Jan Vermeer - The Geographer

Oil on canvas, 1669, 51.6 x 45.4 cm , Städel in Frankfurt


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