c. 1668-69; Oil on canvas, 52 x 45.5 cm; Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main
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.
-- Mark Harden