Is Vermeer’s Astronomer
the famous Dutch Astronomer Christiaan Huygens?
This is one of the hypotheses I explored thoroughly in my PhD thesis 'Harmonic Composition as Conveyor of Fundamental Principles in Artistic Creation: An Insight into Johannes Vermeer's Oeuvre', presented at the School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens, May 2015. (Summary in Greek and English)
My findings are presented here in an accessible way.
It has been suggested that Antony van Leeuwenhoek might be Vermeer’s Geographer. Van Leeuwenhoek was also a resident of Delft, of the same age as Vermeer, and a scientist – a pioneer in microscopic observations. In 1669, Van Leeuwenhoek was admitted as a ‘land-meter’. This was also the year Vermeer inscribed under his signature on his painting, 1669. Some researchers, based on these facts, claimed that van Leeuwenhoek must be the Geographer depicted by the painter. Yet these two men do not look alike.
In Van Leeuwenhoek’s portrait by Johannes Verkolje (image 1), with the heavy, full eyelids and ‘the coarse characteristics’, I could not see any resemblance with Vermeer’s ‘elegant, distinguished scholar’ (image 2) – as emphatically stated also by Montias, the dedicated researcher of the surviving records that reveal any information on Vermeer’s life and artworks.
Moreover, The Geographer has his match, a painting of the same dimensions: one year earlier Vermeer had depicted the same scholar as an Astronomer. And he didn’t just sign this diptych, but he also inscribed the years of the paintings – he had only done this once before to one of his early paintings – and never again after the diptych. So, these two paintings must have been a special commission by an exceptional client.
To my surprise, no one (until I researched this further) had made the connection between Vermeer’s Astronomer and the famous Dutch Astronomer Christiaan Huygens – not one of the many Vermeer researchers had examined this possibility. As is evident in the well-known portrait by the Dutch painter Netscher (image 4), Christiaan Huygens was an elegant and distinguished scholar indeed. One can easily observe the resemblance in the overall physiognomy – the downturned eyelids, the long, thin nose, the cleft in his chin. There is certainly one essential difference: In this official portrait by Netscher, with the posh outfit and the wig, it is not the contemplative scientist who is depicted, but one of the most eminent members of the Dutch elite. Christiaan was both.
I looked persistently for more images of him. There is no acknowledged portrait representing him as a scientist at work – but there is one portrait without a wig.(image 2). The flyaway curls, the length of his wavy hair up to his shoulders, and their colour, which seems to brighten in the light, are similar to Vermeer’s protagonists. In this portrait by Bernard Vaillant, Christiaan is no longer in his forties, but almost fifty-seven years old; his eyelids are heavier, but his hair has not yet turned grey.
The next clue that confirmed my hypothesis was a white relief portrait in profile, at the Paris Observatory. Christiaan wrote to his elder brother that he was not satisfied with this depiction, he was constantly asking the French sculptor Clerion to make corrections… But even so, the resemblance of his profile to Vermeer’s Astronomer is striking.
Where could Vermeer have painted Christiaan? The Huygens’ residence was in The Hague – just half an hour away by carriage from Delft. Yet Christiaan, who was a member of the Royal Society in London and the Académie des Sciences in Paris, was travelling often – and in general, stayed in Paris since 1660. He wasn’t away all of the time however: his health was fragile and the portrait by Netscher was done when he was recovering at The Hague in 1671. It is possible that the two portraits by Vermeer were made accordingly.
In several Vermeer paintings, the distinctive black and white tiles on the floor are repeated, in different variations. This room with the distinctive tiles must have been the painter’s studio in Delft, where he created most of his artworks, as various researchers have claimed. In The Astronomer and The Geographer however, this black and white floor isn’t there. It is possible then that Vermeer was going to another room, maybe in the Huygens’ residence, to paint these two artworks.
The name Huygens has been connected to Vermeer before. In May 1669 (the same year as under Vermeer’s signature) Pieter Teding van Berckhout, scion of a distinguished family in The Hague, upon his arrival in Delft saw “an excellent painter named Vermeer”. After rising early (from his house in the Hague) “he took a ride to Delft on a yacht, where there was also Monsr. de Zuylichem, van der Horst and Nieuwport”. Lord of Zuylichem was the title that Huygens Constantijn, the father, acquired since 1630, when he bought the estate in that specific area. So, experts have assumed until now that this reference concerned Constantijn.
But was this title shared by his sons? Not his other sons, just Christiaan: ‘Christian Huygens van Zuylichem, Christiani Hugenii Zuilichemii, dum viveret Zelhemii toparchae’. Maybe then it was Christiaan himself who was in Delft with the other three men (as they were also closer in age), and not his father. In any case, it is likely that these men, with their stop-over in Delft, also wanted to check on the outcome of the commission made to Vermeer.
Studying the framework of the scientific discoveries of this period, Christiaan’s name appeared over and over: A pioneering mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer, and inventor, he is regarded as a key figure in the Scientific Revolution. The possibility of a connection between these two very important personalities of seventeenth-century Holland, the scientist and the artist who went down in history for their oeuvre, means so much.
Another unexpected clue was the brilliant depiction of Susanna, Christiaan’s younger sister, by Netscher - who has also made the portrait of Christiaan, among other portraits of members of the Huygens family. Her direct gaze and her face were particularly familiar to me. Vermeer’s ‘Lady Standing at the Virginal’ has similar almond-shaped eyes, curved eyebrows, light-coloured hair and small curls in front of her high forehead. There is a striking resemblance of the oval face with the full cheeks, the long straight nose, the lips, the chin; and then the proud poise, the overall refined physiognomy. Her face in Vermeer’s painting is not directly lit but is half in the shadow – and so are her eyes, their colour seems justifiably darker. Vermeer’s portrait was made some years later; she does look a little older.
Searching for another portrait of her, I found the following information: The portrait of Christiaan without a wig is part of a diptych. In the second drawing in pastel, Susanna is depicted. But in spite of my efforts and the emails I sent, I did not manage to get an image of this drawing.
In a very small book that I ordered on the internet (H. E. van Gelder, Ikonografie van Constantijn Huygens en de zijnen, Martinus Nijhoff, Den Haag, 1957), with pictures of Constantijn Huygens, the father, and his family (with two portraits of family members notably made by Rembrandt), there was also a plain portrait of Susanna: a drawing made by her elder brother, around a decade earlier than Vermeer’s work. It confirms all the similarities that I had observed and one more: the hairdo of the Lady Standing at the Virginal is similar.
The characteristic black and white tiles on the floor of the painting indicate that Susanna might have been posing for Vermeer in his own studio in Delft.
The ‘Lady Seated at a Virginal’ has similar dimensions to the ‘Lady Standing at a Virginal’. Another diptych. The brunette seated lady has similar hairdo, dress, and a similar musical instrument to the standing lady. It seems that the Huygens’ family liked to commission diptychs. It isn’t something that Vermeer did with other of his artworks. One of the two paintings – it is not clear which one – belonged to the collection of Diego Duarte, a rich jeweller and banker in Antwerp – who was a very good friend of the Huygens family… One more clue that is in accordance with my proposal.
Some researchers suggest that Diego Duarte must have had the second painting of Vermeer’s diptych, the seated woman, without however basing this assumption on any facts. I believe the opposite. When the paintings were sold, many years later, in auctions carried out after the death of their owners, the painting of the Duarte collection was sold at a markedly higher price than the other painting. It seems more reasonable to me that the standing lady would have fetched more (150 guilders in 1682, as compared to 42 guilders in 1695), as it is generally believed by experts that the seated lady must be incomplete. And that it may be his last painting.
This diptych, and in particular his last painting, has been the subject of a novel I started writing after I finished my PhD thesis.
«ΚΟΣΜΟΘΕΩΡΟΣ». Cosmotheoros. A Greek word for a way to regard the world. This was the title of the last book of Christiaan Huygens; with the celestial world, the planets, the multitude of worlds and even life on other planets as its subjects. The first publication was in Latin in 1698, while its translation in English, Dutch, French, German and Russian followed.
John Michael Montias, Vermeer and his Milieu, A Web of Social History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1989
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001
Philip Steadman, Vermeer’s Camera, Uncovering the Truth Behind the Materpieces, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001