Vermeer’s Astronomer at the MFA
Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, through January 18
Museum of Fine arts Boston
The distinguished senior curator of European paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Ronni Baer, has put together a compelling and instructive exhibition of seventeenth-century Dutch art (mostly oil painting) that focusses on complex layers of social class (Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, through January 18; it reopens on February 20 for three months at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri). There isn’t a painting in the show without interest, including a number of out-and-out masterpieces: early Rembrandt, Hals (in both intimate and heroic—or mock heroic—mode), Ruisdael (the bleaching fields near Haarlem under an enormous cloud-filled sky), de Hooch (a radiant courtyard; a dim geometrical interior), Ter Borch (his glittering satins; a velvety cow suspiciously eyeing a nearby axe), a Van Dyck, and a crisp, penetrating Thomas de Keyser portrait of the Dutch statesman, poet, and musician Constantijn Huygens, father of the scientist Christiaan Huygens, who discovered the rings of Saturn—a big discovery for me.
But the reason I keep going back again and again is the rare opportunity (possibly Boston’s very first) to see two Vermeers without leaving town. Since the Gardner heist in 1990, Boston has been bereft of Vermeer. And Baer has singlehandedly enabled us grievers to see at least a few of his paintings here. In 2003, the Dutch room at the MFA was graced by the iconic Woman with a Water Pitcher, on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. And now there are two Vermeers. One is A Lady Writing—from the National Gallery of Art in Washington (which the National Gallery temporarily replaced with the small but monumental and profoundly touching Woman in Blue Reading a Letter from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum). The other is The Astronomer—a painting the Rothschild family eventually gave to the Louvre after it was recovered from its Nazi hideout by the “monuments men”—a work I believe with each new viewing to be a supreme masterpiece.
My biggest reservation about the show is that the distinctions are more sociological than aesthetic. Maybe there’s an assumption that all Vermeers are great paintings, and the two here certainly hang in a place of honor, on a freestanding wall near the beginning of the exhibition, with Ter Borch’s brilliantly complex Lady at Her Toilette (from Detroit) providing space and perspective between them. (My greatest disappointment with the hanging is that the breathtaking little Ruisdael doesn’t get its due attention crammed between lesser paintings. Several people I spoke to hadn’t even noticed it.)
Yet neither the wall copy nor the discussions in the catalogue are concerned with, or help us appreciate, the Vermeers’ sublimity, their true aesthetic value. The focus is on the lady’s clothing and the luxury items on her writing table, and on the astronomer’s fancy-dress costume and the likelihood of his being a wealthy amateur. This impulse is, for me, seriously reductive and ignores what really makes these works of art so thrilling. While the lady’s fur-trimmed jacket (definitely not ermine—possibly cat!), pearls, and silver inkwell are indeed dazzling—and dazzlingly painted—nothing in the catalogue or the wall copy suggests what poet Gail Mazur says so eloquently on the acoustiguide recording, that the look of concentration on the Lady’s face as she looks up in thought from the page she’s been writing (searching for the right word?) projects the private, contemplative zone of the writer. It’s capturing this look, this suggestion of interior space, as Vermeer does over and over again, maybe most poignantly with the pregnant woman in blue reading her letter, that makes our experience of these works more moving, more profound, than our experience of paintings by van der Helst or even Ter Borch, with all their own sumptuous satins and scintillating pearls. Baer concentrates on the elitism of these portraits and calls the lady’s smile “contented.”
But The Astronomer goes even further—it’s about more. This is one of the most vivid depictions in art of the act of discovery, of the dedication, even passion, to discover a world outside of and beyond the self. And everything in this painting contributes to this sense of discovery. Here is the astronomer in his silk dressing gown (a Japanese “rok”), leaning forward in his chair, practically lifting himself out of it with his curiosity. He’s got an open book in front of him (we actually know what he’s reading—a 1621 treatise by Adriaan Metius on astronomy and geography), an astrolabe (a medieval tool, a sort of proto-sextant), and a crumpled sheet of paper (his own notes?). He’s surrounded by stacks of books. Light comes pouring in through two windows, one above the other, the lower one with a barely visible roundel of stained glass. The most clearly defined object in the room is a globe showing the constellations. The astronomer’s right thumb and middle finger are gingerly touching it, handling it with respect, deference, awe—perhaps about to rotate it. On the wall behind him is a painting of the finding of Moses in the bulrushes—another act of discovery?
Almost none of this is mentioned in the catalogue. Nor is there any reference to the long-held but still unproven theory that the model for The Astronomer, and its companion piece The Geographer (in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt), may have been the Dutch microbiologist and lens-maker Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who like Vermeer was born and baptized in Delft in October of 1632, and who was the executor assigned to dispose of Vermeer’s property after his death in 1675. Only one portrait of van Leeuwenhoek survives, painted some two decades later than The Astronomer and Geographer. It’s hard to tell if this older man is the same person. I’m not saying that Vermeer’s astronomer is a portrait of van Leeuwenhoek, just that it could be. It’s certainly a portrait of someone like van Leeuwenhoek, someone wholeheartedly committed to a search for enlightenment. And if it were actually the famous scientist himself, wouldn’t that only confirm an intensity already in the painting?
“What’s your favorite part of the painting?” a rapt young woman standing in front of The Astronomer asked me. “The light hitting the fingernail of the Astronomer’s left index finger,” I instantly replied. “What’s yours?” She said “the little edge of white shirt sticking out from under the silk sleeve”—her detail only a couple of inches away from mine, though neither of us had paid any attention to the other’s choice before this. And the magical details are countless.
But the miracle of the painting is its structure. I’ve seen diagrams showing the vanishing point just above the center of the painting. The painting is breathtakingly centered, with an uncanny sense of depth. But something even more remarkable is going on. Both The Lady Writing and The Woman in Blue share a kind of pyramidal structure, an image of solidity of which they are the center. The woman in blue rises (like a pyramid) above the familiar objects in her room that surround her—almost gather around her.
In The Astronomer, it’s almost as if that pyramid were tipped on its side. The dominant geometrical motif is an acute angle, like the profile (as a friend put it) of an open eye. Everything on the right, including the Astronomer himself in profile (himself a living eye) is opening out to the left, to the windows of his room and beyond to the world outside, to the cosmos. His two fingers touching the globe share a similar angle. His two arms—one steadying him on his table (what a powerful image of grounding, of stabilizing), the other reaching out to the globe—form another such angle. Even the shadows cast by the light from the windows into the room make a similar angle. It’s a dynamic, active structure—a structure that conveys the process of opening, of discovery.
Of course, there’s also a quality The Astronomer shares with The Lady Writing and The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter—the central figures in these paintings all have sensitive, individual faces—beautiful faces (even in profile). The astronomer, even if he isn’t van Leeuwenhoek, is still another real person—someone who “sees into the life of things,” someone the artist treats with the same respect, deference, and awe with which the astronomer treats his globe.
According to the major Vermeer website, “Essential Vermeer,” The Astronomer ranks only 23rd in popularity among Vermeer’s 37 extant paintings. Although Vermeer himself must have been very pleased with it. It’s one of his surviving paintings that have his signature, his efficiently witty monogram. There it is, a little hard to see, but right above the date (MDCLXVIII): IVMeer. The V overlapping the central part of the M, the I (for Iohannes; i.e., Johannes) like a tree springing up in the middle of the V. And he places this signature right next to the astronomer’s right hand, just as it’s getting ready to turn that cosmic globe.