Scientist of the Day - Jan Vermeer (Honorary)
Jan Vermeer, the Dutch artist, was born Oct. 31, 1632. Vermeer lived his entire life in Delft, a town he made famous in paintings such as his View of Delft(1661; see first image above). Vermeer’s name pops up often in history of science circles, since many believe that Vermeer used a camera lucida, an optical device, to help him capture interior scenes with such extraordinary realism, and discussion about this is still quite active. But today we consider two of Vermeer’s less familiar paintings, The Astronomer (1668; second image above), and the Geographer (1669; third image above). The paintings are of interest, not just because they show celestial and terrestrial globes and observing instruments, but also because the individual portrayed in both paintings seems to be a real person, and the same person. Who is it? Well, Delft is famous for two 17th-century figures, Vermeer, and the microscopist, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. The two were exact contemporaries (Leeuwenhoek was born 7 days earlier) and friends, and indeed Leeuwenhoek was the executor of Vermeer’s estate. In 1668, Leeuwenhoek would have been 36, about the age of the astronomer/geographer pictured by Vermeer. So it is certainly possible that the man portrayed by Vermeer is Leeuwenhoek, and many think it is probable. Most of the “official” portraits of Leeuwenhoek were made much later, after he had become famous, but if you would like to make the comparison, we include a later portrait painting of Leeuwenhoek, as the last image above.
The website Essential Vermeer includes all of Vermeer’s paintings and has lots of helpful features; if you call up The Geographer or The Astronomer and mouse-over the paintings, there are many “hot-spots” that link you to additional relevant information (such as Leeuwenhoek’s portrait).
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City