The painting divides neatly down the middle. On the left side we have books and globes, then considered key repositories of knowledge. And on the right is the world of thought and reflection represented by the sitter, who adopts the classic thinker’s pose: hand on chin, eyes apparently unfocused, looking slightly upwards into the middle distance.
The original title of the painting isn’t recorded, but it is known as An Astronomer because the nearer of the two globes shows a celestial map of the stars and their constellations. Some art historians have suggested that it may be a self portrait, but the sitter does not resemble other images believed to be of Bol. More likely, it is an idealised depiction of an astronomer as a scientist and thinker – there are plenty of other examples in Dutch art around this time.
The original title of the painting isn’t recorded, but it is known as An Astronomer because the nearer of the two globes shows a celestial map of the stars and their constellations. Under high magnification it is possible to make out two figures on the globe. One has been identified as Bubuleus (or Bootes), a figure from ancient Greek myths; the other is not clearly defined but, given its position in the sky, must be Hercules. The other globe is a terrestrial one, which would have shown the known continents of the world.
As well as the constellations, there are other references to the classical world which underline the academic theme of the painting. Behind the sitter is the base of a stone column in Roman or Greek style, while the medallion in the centre of his belt probably depicts a Roman emperor. This combination of classical learning and scientific enquiry was then entirely conventional: the divide between artists and scientists was not as distinct then as it is today. Several Dutch artists engaged in scientific experiments around optics and the behaviour of light, for example, and may well have used lenses and pinhole cameras to help them with their work.
Some art historians have suggested that this painting may be a self portrait, but the sitter does not resemble other images believed to be of Bol. More likely, it is an idealised depiction of an astronomer as a scientist and thinker – there are plenty of other examples in Dutch art around this time, like A Man seated reading at a Table in a Lofty Room and A Young Astronomer. The pose of Bol’s figure and his abstracted manner also suggests that the painting may belong to an artistic tradition of depicting melancholic philosophers. The implication behind the convention was that a scholar’s research would inevitably lead to an awareness of the futility of human endeavour in the face of death.
If Bol was feeling melancholic when he painted this, it wasn’t because his career was going badly. The year this painting was made – it is signed and dated 1652 on the scroll, bottom left – was an important one for him. Having trained in Rembrandt’s studio, he left in 1642 to set up on his own. By the early 1650s he had developed a lighter, brighter palette and was making use of more obviously elegant poses, like we see here. As a result, his reputation as a portraitist and history painter was beginning to outshine that of his former master.
It was in 1652 that Bol became a citizen of Amsterdam, probably because he wanted to be considered for high status commissions to decorate Amsterdam’s new Stadhuis (town hall), which were available only to citizens.
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