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A man stares out of the painting as if deep in thought, one finger inserted between the pages of a book. His arm rests on a celestial globe, suggesting that he is an astronomer. Globes like this were often decorated with constellations and zodiac signs relating to ancient Greek gods and goddesses. (Another one can be seen in Holbein’s Ambassadors, also in the National Gallery.) The classical column beside him is another nod to the ancient Greek world, and the scientific discoveries passed down from its philosophers to modern astronomers.
We're not sure who the sitter is – he is unlikely to be the Frenchman René Descartes (1596–1650), whose name is written on a folded piece of paper to the right. He could be the astronomer Adrien Auzout (died 1691), who worked at the newly built royal observatory in Paris.
The inscription incorrectly attributes the work to either Pierre or Nicolas Mignard, but it is now thought to be by another seventeenth-century French artist, Gabriel Revel.
A man stares out of the painting as if deep in thought, one finger inserted between the pages of a book. He is gazing upwards as if towards the sky, and his arm rests on a celestial globe, suggesting he is an astronomer. Globes like this one were often decorated with constellations and zodiac signs relating to ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Just visible, the base of a classical column is another nod to the ancient Greek world: astronomical knowledge was important among ancient Greek philosophers, who believed that by studying the stars we could learn about our future. Their scientific discoveries were passed down to modern astronomers.
We don't know who the sitter is, but he is unlikely to be René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician whose name is written on a folded piece of paper to the right. Parts of the man’s costume, particularly the wig and neckband of the shirt, date from the 1670s, and Descartes died in 1650.
A portrait of an astronomer would have been topical in about 1670 since the Observatoire Royal was built in an area south of Paris between 1668 and 1772. The building was designed by Claude Perrault (1613–1688) at the suggestion of the astronomer Adrien Auzout (died 1691). The man we see here is too young to be Perrault, but he could be Auzout, whose date of birth is not known, who invented the telescope micrometer (though this in not shown in the portrait).
This inscription also incorrectly attributes this painting to Mignard. The styles of Pierre and his brother Nicolas are quite different from that of Gabriel Revel, who is now thought to have painted this work. During the 1670s Revel spent time working in Paris. In 1683 he became a member of the Académie Royale, submitting portraits of the sculptors François Girardon, now in Musée National du Château, Versailles, and Michel Anguier, location unknown.
The Gallery owns several other seventeenth-century works that explore the astronomy theme, including Ferdinand Bol’s An Astronomer and Olivier van Deuren’s A Young Astronomer. Holbein’s The Ambassadors also includes two magnificent terrestrial and celestial globes.
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