Vermeer's Geographer

Copyright © 1999 Dianne Durante

For comments on the 2014 movie Tim's Vermeer, see here.

Originally published in AOB News (the newsletter of the Association of Objectivist Businessmen),  IX:2 (March/April 1999), pp. 12-14

Vermeer Geographer

Think of a moment of insight - a moment when you had an integration of such scope that it made you stop writing, stop speaking, stop moving, so you could concentrate on working through the implications of that thought. What would you give for a reminder of that moment when you were tired, or had writer's block, or when you just needed to remember that one man improves, and the whole of mankind progresses, by such moments of insight?

The literal subject of Vermeer's Geographer [footnote 1] is simply a man leaning over a piece of parchment. The globe, maps on the floor and wall, and dividers in his hands, for measuring distances, indicate his occupation. Yet the painting undeniably depicts a moment of insight.

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Wait: "undeniably"? Isn't everyone entitled to his own opinion (however bizarre) about a painting's meaning? Doesn't the interpretation of art depend either on your gut feelings or the authoritarian pronouncements of Those Who Know?

No. A work of art is an artist's statement about some aspect of man and his world. The painter selects objects he considers important and gives them a distinct color, illumination, texture, arrangement. He gives them a certain emphasis, sets a certain mood. In so doing, he presents his judgment of these particular bits of reality - and if he's good, he can show much more than that. Art is, in Ayn Rand's words, "a selective recreation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." [footnote 2] You can learn what the artist is saying by use of yourown mind - not your gut, or someone else's statements - if you study the details of a painting systematically and meticulously.

To end the reign of abstract art and make representational art dominant again, we need more than artists who are highly skilled at representational art - important as that is. We also need viewers who know what art is and is not, and who can interpret and evaluate art without relying on the pronouncements of art critics. In short, we need not only skilled producers but educated consumers.

The following essay on Vermeer's Geographer demonstrates how to examine a painting systematically in order to arrive at an accurate statement of the painting's meaning, its theme. I call this method "esthetic analysis."

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Let us see what Vermeer includes and emphasizes in order to convey not just intellectual activity, but one of those rare moments of insight. The first item to catch one's eye is the man's face, in part because the curves of his forehead and nose, highlighted in white, are set off sharply against the dark shadow on the armoire. Vermeer, who is exceptionally skilled at portraying details, has shown hardly any distinctive features on this man's face - no bone structure, little variation in skin tone. Even his hair is an undistinguished brown, shoved behind his ears to keep it out of the way. The only facial feature that stands out is his eyes, narrowed in concentration, looking toward the light from the window. The absence of detail and the emphasis on the eyes indicate that this is not a portrait of a specific individual, but of a thinker.

The man's hands, like his face, are brightly illuminated, so that our eyes are also drawn to them. The left hand, resting on a book, bears the weight of his torso: look at the straightness of the arm and the set of his shoulder. In his other hand, the dividers are poised sideways, in mid-air, rather than touching the parchment on the table. It is a fleeting pose, slightly off balance, as if he has stopped to think for a moment and will soon turn back to the parchment to continue his work. In another context the slightly bent posture might signal fatigue or old age, but here, combined with the angle of the head, it quite clearly indicates an abrupt pause while the man weighs a new idea.

Close inspection of the painting has revealed that the Geographer's head was originally inclined toward the parchment, and the dividers were held vertically, ready to be used. Think of the difference this would have made: we would see a man hard at work, rather than at a moment of insight.

Now look at the Geographer's robe: plain, simple, unobtrusive. What does it tell us? First, that he is motionless: it falls in straight, simple lines. Next, that he is not overly concerned with his physical appearance: this is functional clothing, not the elaborate apparel often depicted in paintings of this period. (See, for example, the costumes in many Hals and Rembrandt portraits.) But, despite its simplicity, the robe has an important visual function: the "V" shape of the red edging and the white shirt tucked beneath it both draw attention to the Geographer's face. Cover the red and white, and some of the emphasis on his face is lost.

What about the setting? The chamber in which we see the Geographer is quite clearly his room, his work area: every item in it is for his use, on his scale, within his reach. He is the center of and the purpose for the room. The objects surrounding him are rigorously selected either to tell us more about the man's actions or to add to the mood.

The dividers show that he is not merely looking at the maps that are scattered around him, but taking measurements for some purpose of his own. The globe, the books on top of the armoire and the map on the wall and floor are condensations of other men's knowledge, which our Geographer uses in his own inquiries. With the exception of the globe, which catches light from the window and helps move the eye around the painting, the other props - books, armoire, window panes, framed map, chair, small table in foreground - are all strictly rectangular, and painstakingly proportioned and positioned in relation to each other and to the Geographer. They provide an unadorned, almost mathematical setting for the Geographer's work. Imagine for a moment that the window had richly textured, looped curtains, or that the armoire was elaborately carved, the chair overstuffed, or the map frame elaborately gilt: the emphasis would shift away from the Geographer and what he's doing.

Also notice the importance of the window. By its presence and by the fact that the man is looking toward it, it marks him as someone who is in touch with the outside world, with reality, not an ivory-tower philosopher. Again, imagine the difference if the man had his back to the window, or if he were in his study late at night, with only candlelight for illumination. But even here, Vermeer has included the bare minimum. We see the clear, bright light flooding in the window, but we cannot see out of it: there is no cityscape or landscape to distract our attention.

Despite the pared-down furnishings, Vermeer's meticulous depiction of how the light hits different surfaces in the room makes the Geographer's study a place so full of rich textures and colors that it almost seems luxurious. Look at the shine on the windowsill and the globe, and the creamy smoothness of the parchment spread out in front of the Geographer. Look at the heavy, matte blue fabric of his robe and the crisp white of the shirt beneath. Look at the unobtrusive but intricate tapestry covering the small, stiff chair at the right. Look at the rug in the foreground (at this period it was common to use a rug for a tablecloth), and notice how the red and blue of the Geographer's robe are echoed in its complex pattern - and how its lush folds have been thrust aside so he can work. Observe how even the plaster wall and bare floor are made decorative by the play of light and shadow, from creamy white to deep brown. These background colors are important: they help set a warm, bright atmosphere. If the dominant colors were chilly shades of blue and the light were pure white rather than yellowish, the room would appear bleak and austere.

It is fascinating to compare The Geographer with Vermeer's Astronomer [footnote 3], which was probably painted as a pendant to the Geographer. In theAstronomer we see a man with hair and robe very similar to the Geographer's. He, too, faces a brightly lit window, but instead of gazing out of it, he intently studies a globe, and instead of standing frozen in mid-motion, he is seated with his hand resting on the globe. The sunlight seems less bright, and the colors certainly are - the Astronomer's robe is deep greenish-blue, and the rug is in subdued blue and green tones. Like the Geographer, the Astronomer is engaged in rigorous intellectual activity, but we see him still gathering information. The Geographer, on the other hand, has gathered his information and has just had the moment of insight when his observations are integrated into a new level of knowledge.

"And if there had been more of the world, they would have reached it," said Camões, with splendid arrogance, of the fifteenth-century Portuguese explorers [footnote 4]. Vermeer shows us that heroes are not only those who sail uncharted seas, but those who painstakingly integrate the sailors' findings. Here, in a visual image that we can grasp in an instant, is a man discovering a new fact about reality in a world wide open to his inquiring mind.

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I said earlier that the Geographer is about a moment of insight. Is disagreement on this point possible? Yes, but it must be based on a precise observation of the elements of the painting. It's justifiable to say, for example, "I disagree with your interpretation based on X, which you failed to observe, and Y, which you misinterpreted." It's not justifiable to say, "I don't know why, I just feel you're off the mark."

What about your emotional reaction to a work of art? For many of us such a reaction is the only reason we spend more than a minute gazing at a painting. Few things are as satisfying and exciting as seeing a painting that sums up your values, your view of the world. But your emotional reaction is, in fact, a combination of what the painting says and your own memories, thoughts and experiences. If your father was a geographer, you might love Vermeer's Geographer simply because of that. If the room in the Geographer reminds you of the principal's office in your high school, on the other hand, you may take an immediate dislike to this painting. But the painting's theme remains the same, independent of your emotional reaction, be it positive or negative. Discussing your emotional reaction is not the same as discussing the objective meaning of the painting.

It is objective interpretation of art that we must learn to practice if we wish to make representational art dominant once again. Viewers and potential purchasers who can interpret for themselves and are confident in defending their interpretations will be eager to purchase not vacuous abstract garbage but works that have meaning.

 

NOTES

1. Now in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt; 21 7/8 x 18 1/4". For an excellent illustration, see Johannes Vermeer, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock, the catalogue of an exhibition held 11/95-2/96 at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., colorplate 16 and pp. 170-5. The illustration in Wheelock's Jan Vermeer(New York, 1988), colorplate 31, is much darker than the original; for example, the pattern on the rug in the foreground is almost too dark to see.

2. Romantic Manifesto p. 19 (pb, 1975). Available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore.

3. The Astronomer is at the Louvre; for a good color illustration, see Johannes Vermeer, p. 52 and here

4. Lusiadas VII, 14.

Further Reading