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  • Johannes VermeerOct 31, 1632 - Dec 15, 1675
  • The Geographer - Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in exquisite, domestic interior scenes of middle class life. Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colours and sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for cornflower blue and yellow. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
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The Geographer
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  • The Geographer

  • Johannes Vermeer
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  • c.1668-1669
    Oil on canvas
    Stadelsches Kunstinstitut - Franfurt, Germany.

    Mark Harden:

    "In "The Geographer", Vermeer presents another individual in an interior. This male figure, though, is endowed with intense energy in comparison to the contemplative women of other compositions. The flow of light from left to right activates the canvas. The flow is accentuated compositionally by the massing of objects on the left. The light spills forcefully into the open area on the right, casting a powerful series of diagonal shadows. Vermeer adjusted his initial depiction of the figure to provide a more active stance. Detailed study of the canvas reveals that the geographer originally looked down at the table, with his dividers also pointed down. Adjusting the composition to align the man's face and the dividers with the flow of light gave further energy to the movement across the canvas. The folds of the robe also serve to activate the figure, with their dynamic, almost abstract depiction in their sunlit portion.

    "The painting accurately renders the cartographic objects that express the theme: the sea chart, globe, dividers, square and a cross-staff that was used to measure the elevation angle of the sun and stars. It is probable that Vermeer's sophisticated presentation of these instruments was informed by his association with famed scientist Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek. Although no documents exist linking the two, they were both born in Delft in the same year. A contemporary portrait of Leeuwenhoek closely resembles the figure in Vermeer's geographer, and it is very possible that Leewenhoek served as the model.

    "Another Vermeer work, "The Astronomer", is commonly considered a pendant to "The Geographer". In it, the same model is depicted, this time among the instruments of astronomical study. Both paintings dramatically convey the excitement of scholarly inquiry and discovery. Considering these works as pendants offers an allegorical interpretation: the astronomer, student of the heavens, searches for spiritual guidance; the geographer, student of the earth, charts the proper course for temporal life."

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Johannes VermeerThe life and art of Johannes Vermeer are closely associated with the city of Delft. Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632 and lived there until his death in 1675. His father, Reynier Jansz., was a weaver who produced "caffa," a fine satin fabric. In 1631 he also registered in the Saint Luke's Guild in Delft as a master art dealer. By 1641 he was sufficiently prosperous to purchase a large house with an inn, the "Mechelen," on the market square in Delft, where he probably also sold paintings. When Reynier died in 1652 Johannes apparently inherited his father's business. By that time he must have already decided on a career as a painter. It is assumed that he trained in Delft, perhaps with Leonaert Bramer (1596-1674), who seems to have had close associations with Vermeer's family, or with Carel Fabritius (1622-1654). No documents, however, exist about his artistic training or apprenticeship, and he may have studied elsewhere, perhaps in Utrecht or Amsterdam.

Vermeer, who was baptized on 31 October 1632 in the Reformed Church in Delft, was raised a Protestant. In April 1653 Vermeer married into a Catholic family and seems to have converted to Catholicism shortly before that date to placate his future mother-in-law, Maria Thins. Maria Thins lived in the so-called Papists' Corner ("Papenhoek") of Delft, adjacent to one of the two churches where Catholics could worship, the Jesuit church on the Oude Langendijck. Vermeer and his wife, Catharina Bolnes, eventually moved from the "Mechelen" into her house. They named their first daughter Maria, in honor of Maria Thins, and their first son Ignatius, after the patron saint of the Jesuit Order.

Vermeer became a master in the Saint Luke's Guild on 29 December 1653. His aspiration at that time seems to have been to become a history painter, for his first works were large-scale mythological and religious paintings. Shortly thereafter he began to paint the genre scenes, landscapes, and allegories for which he has become renowned. While Vermeer's subject matter changed in the mid-1650s, he nevertheless continued to imbue his later works with the quiet, intimate moods of his early history paintings.

Although very little is known about relationships with other painters who might have influenced the thematic and stylistic direction of his art, Vermeer apparently knew Gerard ter Borch II, with whom he co-signed a document in 1653. Another artist who may well have had an impact on his work during the 1650s was Pieter de Hooch, who painted comparable scenes in Delft during that period. Vermeer remained a respected artist in Delft throughout the rest of his life. He was named hoofdman of the Delft St. Luke's Guild in 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1671.

Vermeer's few works--they number only about thirty-five--were not well known outside of Delft, perhaps because many of them were concentrated in the collection of a patron in Delft who seems to have had a special relationship with the artist. When Vermeer died, however, he was heavily in debt, in part because his art dealing business had suffered during the difficult economic times following the French invasion of the Netherlands in the early 1670s. Vermeer was survived by his wife Catharina and eleven children, eight of whom were underage. His wife petitioned for bankruptcy the following year. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the famed Delft microscopist who was apparently a friend of Vermeer, was named trustee for the estate.