Scientific investigation has given Vermeer’s famous 1650’s masterpiece, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, a dramatic new look that returns it to the image originally painted by the artist.
A full restoration has returned Johannes Vermeer’s well-known and much-loved painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window to its original condition and appearance, just as it was when it left the artist’s studio during the late 1650s.
But it is no longer the same painting that the world has come to know and love. In fact, the meticulous restoration has revealed a stunning feature of the original work that has remained hidden from the world for almost two and a half centuries.
The work, which went on public display at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany, on 10 September, now contains a depiction of a naked cupid figure on the rear wall of the scene, a feature that dramatically changes the intent and interpretation of the painting.
The revelation makes it clear that the girl in the painting is reading a letter that contains news about a romantic relationship and provides a contextual comment on love and human interaction.
The painting is part of the ‘Johannes Vermeer. On reflection’ exhibition which also features several other of the surviving Vermeer works that contain similar images of cupid as a key reference point from the artist.
The canvas, painted around 1657-1659, was acquired in Paris in 1742 for the collection of Saxon Prince Elector Friedrich Augustus II, and has been one of the principal works in Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie ever since.
An X-ray taken of the painting in 1979 showed that there was a fully overpainted picture-within-a-picture of a nude Cupid that adorned the room’s rear wall in the background.
Annaliese Mayer-Meintschel first published this fascinating finding in 1982, and it has been cited in many works on the subject.
Since then, art commentators and academics assumed that Vermeer rejected the Cupid painting as he was unhappy with the composition, and painted over the room’s rear wall himself.
However, in a restoration and research project that began in 2017 and was supported by a panel of international experts, the conservation team made or re-evaluated X-rays, infrared reflectance spectroscopies and microscopies of the oil painting.
The backing canvas was also analysed in detail and research was conducted into the painting’s restoration history.
Multiple colour samples were taken from Vermeer’s painting and the layers and consistency were analysed in Dresden Academy of Fine Arts’ Laboratory of Archaeometry.
As a result, the overpainting of the cupid figure has been radically reassessed.
Art experts can now safely state that it was not Vermeer himself who painted over the background, and that the retrospective change was applied at least several decades after the painting was made, and significantly after the artist’s death.
A full-surface X-ray fluorescence scan of the painting, conducted with the support of the Rijksmuseum in 2017, confirmed our new findings on the overpainting.
Given the strong evidence that a third party had painted over the Cupid retroactively, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD), endorsed by the panel of experts, made the decision in early 2018 to remove the overpainted layer.
Christoph Schölzel, a conservator at the SKD Paintings Conservation Workshop, took on overall responsibility for restoration of the painting. The over paint was painstakingly removed by hand with a scalpel, a process that required meticulous care and incredible delicacy.
The restoration process, completed in early 2021, gives the painting has an entirely new look. A standing Cupid with a bow, arrows and two masks has been revealed in the background, enriching the room’s rear wall as a picture-within-a-picture. The figure is treading on the masks of pretence lying on the ground before him – a sign of sincere love overcoming deception and hypocrisy. The presence of Cupid in the composition is a meaningful ‘comment’ that adds greatly to the painting’s message.
Stephan Koja, Director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister und Skulpturensammlung bis 1800 said: “It is in Girl Reading a Letter that Vermeer discovers his own, distinct style. It marks the beginning of a series of paintings in which individuals, generally women, pause during an activity to find a moment of calm, and to reflect. In this series, Vermeer examines fundamental existential questions, in particular in this piece: restoring the Cupid in the background shows us the master from Delft’s true intention. Beyond the superficial romantic context, it makes a fundamental statement on the nature of true love. Until now, we could only see this as a fragment. Now we know what a key role it plays in his oeuvre.”
Uta Neidhardt, Head Conservator and Exhibition Curator explains: “The changed appearance of the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, including the overpainting removed at the borders of the canvas, gives us an opportunity to reconsider the painting’s composition and how it works visually.”
The restored masterpiece is on display in an historically accurate ebony frame in the ‘Johannes Vermeer On Reflection’ exhibition until 2 January 2022.