A curtain has been pulled back on van Deuren’s young astronomer to reveal the stargazer looking not at the heavens but at a celestial globe, marked with northern and zodiacal constellations, that he has taken from its stand. A notebook and inkpot sit on his desk awaiting his observations; books of astronomical charts and a quadrant for measuring celestial angles are ready to help him.
The Netherlands in the seventeenth century was a centre for astronomical study and the young practitioner is perhaps thinking about the discoveries he too might make. The quizzical look on his face, fascination mixed with apprehension, suggests how difficult the task of plumbing the mysteries of the heavens will be. He is looking not just to see where new stars and planets might be found but if his own fate is written in the stars.
Little is known about the Dutch painter Olivier van Deuren, who was born in Rotterdam and was a pupil of three significant masters, Peter Lely, Frans van Mieris the Elder and Caspar Netscher. He was a member of the painter’s guild and served it as an officer at various points during his career. His few surviving works show figures in interiors, such as a woman sewing or a goldsmith in his workshop.
Van Deuren is a rather mysterious figure who painted enigmatic pictures, and this painting is no exception. A curtain has been pulled back to reveal a young stargazer at his desk. He holds in his hands a celestial globe which he has removed from its stand so that he can closely examine the constellations marked on it: Draco, Ursa Major (the Great Bear), Leo and Bubuleus are clearly visible. On the table in front of him are his notebook, a pot of ink, other books that may contain star charts or astronomical tables, and a sine quadrant, an instrument developed by medieval Arabic astronomers to measure celestial angles, tell the time or determine the positions of celestial objects. Although the young man is a student of astronomy there is no telescope present, even though the instrument had been invented in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century and perfected there.
Van Deuren was not the only Dutch painter of the time to depict this subject; both Gerrit Dou and Johannes Vermeer made paintings of astronomers around the same time that are not dissimilar in composition. They were perhaps in part inspired by the fame of their contemporary, the great Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), who won international renown for his pioneering studies of the rings of Saturn, his discovery of its moon Titan, and the significant improvements he made to telescope design.
Van Deuren’s young astronomer is a man of science, ready to jot down his observations, but the zodiacal symbol of Leo is also a reminder that celestial bodies were believed to influence humans. The painting then has a slightly mystical edge, one heightened by the look of slightly quizzical concentration on the young man’s face as his study of the stars gives way to even larger concerns.
The young man is oblivious to the viewer: he sits absorbed, fascinated, and perhaps a little daunted too. He is wondering perhaps whether he can discover a new celestial body and find fame like Huygens, Edmund Halley or John Flamsteed, the English Astronomer Royal who made a 3,000-star catalogue, Catalogus Britannicus. But he might be wondering too what lies beyond the constellations and how they were made: his mind drifting both into deep space and the indefinable realm where science and religion meet.
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