The Vermeer Connection

A lot of circumstantial, even common sense evidence links Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek. However, no direct documentary evidence connects them.

Their names appear together on several legal documents. The first (left) is the register of their baptisms in the Nieuwe Kerk in November 1632. Vermeer's entry is the second from the top, and Leeuwenhoek's is the eighth.

The others are the documents associated with Leeuwenhoek's service as the curator of Vermeer's estate. That wasn't special, either. Curator duties were part of Leeuwenhoek's job with the magistrate's court, and the Vermeer case was the fifth of about ten such cases that we know about.

Every other connection between the two has at least one degree of separation, but Delft was a small town.

  • Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer lived very close to each other.
  • Leeuwenhoek sold linen fabric; Vermeer painted on linen.
  • They had many common friends, especially in the St. Luke's Guild of painters.
  • They had common interests, such as optics.
  • Vermeer painted scientific instruments; Leeuwenhoek used them.

The idea that Leeuwenhoek sat for two of Vermeer's paintings -- the Astronomer (below left) and the Geographer (below right) -- does not seem credible, if only from visual comparison of the faces, especially the distance between various features. They are dated 1668, when both painter and subject would have been 36. Leeuwenhoek was between wives, which might have given him the time. However, he had a 12-year-old daughter and he was learning how to grind lenses, which would have kept him busy. He was also working on his first curatorial assignment, administering the finances and later the estate of Sijmon Bourbon.

Jonathan Janson discusses this connection in detail at Laura Snyder speculates even further throughout Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. On his blog, Gary Schwartz reacted to the Snyder's fanciful connections between the two, as did I in my critique of Eye of the Beholder in Studium. (See Sources below.)

Even though today we see them as Delft's most famous citizens, when Vermeer died in December 1675, Leeuwenhoek was just beginning the observations for which he would become famous. And Vermeer was just another dead painter in a town full of them.

Leeuwenhoek's most famous letter, dated October 9, 1676, records a series of observations stretching over months. It suddenly stops at the end of September. Why? The observations were not all completed. However, on the 30th of that month, Leeuwenhoek was appointed curator of the Vermeer estate. Knowing both how tangled it was and the personality of Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, perhaps Leeuwenhoek felt he had better get that letter off to the Royal Society before he became too busy.

To speculate, if it had been Leeuwenhoek who died in 1675, everything he discovered would have been discovered by someone else. However, if Vermeer had lived into his nineties, as did Leeuwenhoek, just think of the decades of mature paintings that never got painted.