Astronomers solve a longstanding artwork puzzle
Using modern tools, a team of astronomers uses celestial sleuthing to figure out when Vermeer painted his masterpiece "View of Delft."
- The origin of Vermeer's acclaimed landscape has long puzzled historians.
- The painting is of the artist's home town, but exactly when it was made is a mystery.
- A team of astronomers have uncovered clues hidden in the artwork.
Just 35 paintings done by Johannes Vermeer survive.
The best-known among these is his captivating "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Part of what makes it so arresting is Vermeer's masterful use of light — his model's eyes practically glow with life and intelligence, staring straight back into your own. You may not be as familiar with "View of Delft," a landscape that writer Marcel Proust declared "the most beautiful painting in the world." Vermeer's genius here makes viewing this masterpiece feel as if you're actually there, warmed by the morning sun that illuminates the scene across the water.
Or is it the afternoon sun? Not much is known about Vermeer's life, and people have puzzled over this landscape for years, trying to identify exactly the view it depicts and when Vermeer could have painted it. Some experts had tagged its source of light as coming from the west, while others felt that it must've been directly overhead.
Now a team of researchers from Texas State University led by astronomer Donald Olsen have solved the riddle, thanks in part to the uncanny manner in which Vermeer was able to capture the play of light and shadow. When was it painted? According to the study, it was September 3 or 4, 1659 at 8 a.m. from a second-story inn window.
The research is published in the March 2020 issue of astronomy magazine Sky & Telescope.
What did Vermeer paint?
Delft today, a bit to the right of the painter's view and closer-in
Image source: Hit1912/Shutterstock
Olson, along with fellow astronomer Russell Doescher and three students — Charles Condos, Michael Sánchez, and Tim Jenison — took a multidisciplinary approach to their sleuthing.
The first question to be resolved was the location from which Vermeer painted the picture, and what he was painting.
Says Olson, "The students and I worked for about a year on this project. We spent a lot of time studying the topography of the town, using maps from the 17th and 19th centuries and Google Earth."
They concluded that Vermeer was looking northward from the second story of an inn across the triangular Kolk harbor, located at the southern end of his hometown. The students mapped out the painting's landmarks with Google Earth and calculated the angles and distances to reveal that it represented a 42-degree-wide view of the harbor from Vermeer's vantage point. "Google Earth is spectacularly accurate when it comes to distances and angles, so we used it as our measuring stick," Sánchez says.
The online research was followed up with a physical visit to Delph by Olson and Droescher, during which the retired professors took their own measurements and an array of photographs to confirm and expand on the students' conclusions.
When did Vermeer paint it?
Image source: Mauritshuis, The Hague/Big Think
Important clues can be found in the Nieuwe Kerk tower, located to the right of landscape's center. Some experts concluded, for example, that the painting had been done in 1660, but the tower rules out that possibility. While Vermeer's rendering shows the openings in the belfry as being empty, carillon bells — still present today — were installed there starting in April 1660. This would still leave the early months of 1660, except that in Delft there would be no leaves on the painting's trees before late April or early May. So much for 1660.
As for the time, look at the clock in the picture. To many, the clock has two hands that show a time just after 7 a.m. The authors of the new research noticed in other paintings from the period that the two hands of a clock were always lined up. Further research revealed, however, that clocks of this period didn't actually have two hands — they had just one, an hour hand. With this in mind, Vermeer's clock looks a lot more like 8 a.m.
Finding the date was a bit trickier, but again the octagonal Nieuwe Kerk tower provided an answer. Each of the tower's eight corners has its own stone column. The right side of the center-most column is lit, while its left is in shadow. On the next column to the left, however, is a thin sliver of light not blocked by the center column. Trusting Vermeer's careful depiction of light and shadow, the team was able to use this subtle detail to deduce the precise angle of sunlight shown in the painting. "That's our key," says Olson. "That's the sensitive indicator of where the sun has to be to do that, to just skim the one projection and illuminate the other. The pattern of light and shadows was a sensitive indicator of the position of the sun."
The team used astronomical software to identify any days on which the sun was at precisely that angle around 8 in the morning. The software returned two periods, one in April 1660, which was discarded for the reasons noted above, and the other around September 3-4, 1659.
Art takes time
The days identified by the Texas State researchers are most likely those on which Vermeer made the preliminary observations from which he executed the painting. Says Olson, "Vermeer is known to have worked slowly. Completing all the details on the large canvas of his masterpiece may have taken weeks, months or even years."
Still, "His remarkably accurate depiction of the distinctive and fleeting pattern of light and shadows on the Nieuwe Kerk suggests that at least this detail was inspired by direct observation of the sunlit tower rising above the wall and roofs of Delft."
And now we know when.
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University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.
- With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
- The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
- If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Built for mayhem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzk4NTQ2OX0.my6nML12F3fEQu3H4G0BScdqgaMZkRQHxgyj-Cmjmzk/img.jpg?width=980" id="906fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd77af7a881631355ed8972437846394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers are, of course, talking averages here, not stating a rule: There are plenty of accomplished female pugilists, as well as lots of males who have no idea how to throw a punch.</p><p>Even so, says co-author <a href="https://www.wofford.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/biology/faculty-and-staff" target="_blank">Jeremy Morris</a> says, "The general approach to understanding why sexual dimorphism evolves is to measure the actual differences in the muscles or the skeletons of males and females of a given species, and then look at the behaviors that might be driving those differences."</p><p>Carrier has been interested in the idea that millennia of male fighting has shaped certain structures in male bodies. Previous research has reinforced his hunch:</p> <ul> <li><a href="https://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/2/236" target="_blank">When a hand is formed into a fist, its structure is self-protective</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://unews.utah.edu/flat-footed-fighters/" target="_blank">Heels planted firmly on the ground augment upper-body power</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909544" target="_blank">A study examined facial bone structure as being especially well-suited for taking a punch</a>.</li> </ul> <p>(That last one is our favorite. Do you know the German word "<a href="https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Backpfeifengesicht" target="_blank">backpfeifengesicht</a>?" It's an adjective describing "a face that badly needs a punching.")</p><p>"One of the predictions that comes out of those," asserts Carrier, "is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch."</p>
Testing the theory<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzMxMTE2MH0.UXJICMy57UPYUWskhK98alctOrPidJL9yxMkz3HDQrM/img.jpg?width=980" id="98718" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b12287684ac3e740b70392e6433a6b8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers measured the punching — and spear-throwing — force of 20 men and 19 women. The assumption was that early humans were punchers <em>and</em> spear-throwers.</p><p>Prior to testing, each participant had filled out an activity questionnaire so that "we weren't getting couch potatoes, we were getting people that were very fit and active," says Morris.</p><p>For punching, participants operated a hand crank that required movement similar to throwing a haymaker. The purpose of the hand crank was to spare participants any damage that might be inflicted on their fists by throwing actual punches. Subjects were also measured pulling a line forward over their heads to assess their strength at throwing a spear.</p><p>Even though all of the participants, male and female, were routinely fit, the average power of males was assessed as being 162% greater than females. There were no gender differences in throwing strength recorded. Other untested, though presumably likely, hand-to-hand combat activities come to mind including tackling, clubbing, running, kicking, scratching, and biting.</p><p>Carrier's takeaway: "This is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting, and males fighting in a particular way, which is throwing punches."</p>
Boys will be boys<p>It, er, strikes us as odd that, even in science fiction — hi-tech weaponry notwithstanding — the hero <em>is</em> going to wind up duking it out with some bad guy, or alien, in the climactic battle. What is it about men punching, anyway? Are they more sexually attractive? The study suggests so:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The results of this study add to a set of recently identified characters indicating that sexual selection on male aggressive performance has played a role in the evolution of the human musculoskeletal system and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in hominins.</em></p><p>It's tough to contribute to the gene pool after being killed in battle.</p><p>Also, while the authors aren't <em>quite</em> saying that males' historical fighting role is mandated by biology and not by social expectations, neither are they quite <em>not</em> saying it.</p><p>As Carrier explain to <a href="https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/carrier-punch/" target="_blank">theU</a>: "Human nature is also characterized by avoiding violence and finding ways to be cooperative and work together, to have empathy, to care for each other, right? There are two sides to who we are as a species. If our goal is to minimize all forms of violence in the future, then understanding our tendencies and what our nature really is, is going to help."</p>
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.