A man wearing the cap and gown of a scholar sits at a desk in a dark and cavernous room, a glazed expression on his face. He clasps a pair of reading glasses, implying that he was until a moment ago studying the book propped up in front of him. A large diagram of the palm of a hand is visible on one of its pages, suggesting that its subject is palmistry (the art of supposedly interpreting a person’s character or predicting their future by examining their palm). Various details, particularly the celestial globe in the background, also help to identify the man as an astrologer.
In the seventeenth century, astrology and palmistry were both associated with the charlatans who claimed that through the use of such ploys they could reveal someone’s fate. But this man’s vacant expression, slumped shoulders and disorderly surroundings suggest that he is despairing of the futility of his actions.
A man wearing a scholar’s cap and gown sits at his desk in a dark and cavernous room, a glazed expression on his face. A large book is propped up in front of him, a diagram of the palm of a hand visible on one of its pages; its subject may be palmistry, the art of supposedly interpreting a person’s character or predicting their future by examining their palm. The sketch of a human skeleton pinned to the wall on the far left suggests he has an interest in anatomy, while the flask that lays on the stone floor was probably used for alchemy (the attempt to turn base metals into silver and gold). The celestial globe in the background alludes to the man’s role as an astrologer.
At the time this painting was made, such interests were associated with charlatans and quack doctors. But Cornelis Bega has not adopted the caricature of the quack figure typically seen in seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. Instead, he has depicted his sitter as a seemingly sophisticated, handsome and scholarly man. The globe is positioned like a halo behind his head, and his depiction in profile is reminiscent of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century portraiture. The man’s vacant expression and withdrawn pose, with his hands clasped in his lap and his legs crossed at his ankles, create a feeling of hopelessness – it is as if he has realised the futility of his endeavours. The disorderly array of books, papers and fabric surround him like a cocoon, while the open cupboard under his desk and the large jar with its lid askew add to the sense of neglect.
Bega painted a small series of melancholic subjects, including this one, in 1663, just a year before his death. The group included The Blind Fiddler (Ashmolean, Oxford) which depicts a blind man playing a fiddle in a tavern. The tavern setting looks similar to the room shown here. Both are cave-like, with stone floors and dark recesses framed by stone archways. Both are dimly lit, with light appearing to come from an unknown source to the left, illuminating the figures in the centre of each composition. This creates an oppressive atmosphere, and one which is especially prominent in Bega’s depiction of the astrologer.
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