Restoration of Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, painted around 1658, has revealed a long-hidden surprise – the figure of a Cupid on the wall behind the subject.
It has long been known from X-ray studies that the Cupid had been painted over, but it was believed that this had been done by Vermeer himself; detailed chemical examination now suggests that the overpainting was done after Vermeer’s death, so the decision has been made to restore the painting to its original composition, making it clear that the subject is in fact reading a love letter.
The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Germany has decided to remove the overpainting from the Dutch Old Master’s work, which normally hangs in the institution’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. The museum plans to restore the work according to Vermeer’s original intention. Stephan Koja, the director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, has called the new composition “sensational.”
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is currently on view in an intermediate state of restoration (it will stay on display until June 16, 2019) before the rest of the overpaint will be removed. So far, the long-hidden cupid is only half showing.
The existence of the cupid has long been known by researchers. In 1979, an x-ray first revealed the image of the naked god of love, either in a frame or as a framed fresco within the painting. The extent of empty wall did seem to unbalance the composition, so it now seems that the overpainting was done at the request of an owner of the painting, perhaps to obscure its erotic elements.
The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s painting conservator Christoph Schölzel began working on the canvas in 2017, using X-ray, infrared reflectography imaging, and microscopic analysis of the underlying layer of the canvas. Using comparisons with Vermeer’s other works and restorations, it became clear that the overpainting had ben done decades after the artist’s death.
The first stage in the restoration process was the removal of multiple layers of varnish which had turned yellowish brown as a result of ageing. This coating had been applied in the 19th century and had been subsequently renewed several times. The removal of this varnish resulted in the subtle, cool colours of Vermeer’s original painting being rediscovered. It also became evident that the painting – apart from the edge areas – is in an excellent state of preservation, given that it is 360 years old.
During the removal of the varnish, it was found that the solubility properties of the paints in the central part of the background differed from those of the other areas of the painting. It was already known, from the x-ray images taken in 1979, that a “painting within the painting” existed on the rear wall of the room – a depiction of a naked Cupid that had been completely painted over. For a long time, this overpainting was attributed to Vermeer himself.
Prior to continuation of work on this area of the painting, investigations concerning the structure of the paint layers were performed in the archaeometry laboratory of the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden. These showed that aged layers of binding agent and a layer of dirt exist between the original paint layers applied by Vermeer and the paint used for painting over the Cupid picture. A period of several decades must therefore have intervened between the completion of the painting with the Cupid picture and the application of the layer of overpainting, which means that Vermeer cannot have painted over the background picture himself. When the painting came to Dresden from the collection of the Prince of Carignan in France in 1742, this major change to the composition had evidently already been carried out.
Following numerous tests, it was established that the most favourable method for meticulously removing the layer of overpainting was to use a fine scalpel under a microscope. Only in this way is it possible to retain the layers of binding agent between the original paint layer and the paint used for the overpainting. This layer may well be the last existing original varnish layer applied by Vermeer.
The later overpainting of the Cupid was undoubtedly due to altered tastes and not to any damage to the paint layer, such as the small areas of abrasion and the scratch above the boy’s right arm, which have now been exposed again.
Complete restoration of the painting is expected to take at least another year.
The revealed cupid bears a striking resemblance to one seen in Vermeer’s A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal. It may have been inspired by a painting in Vermeer’s possession, attributed to Cesar van Everdingen.
Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer completed relatively few paintings in his lifetime, and died in debt in 1675. His oeuvre of around 40 works includes Girl With a Pearl Earring, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, and Woman Holding a Balance, among the most well-known paintings in the world.
British photographer Tom Hunter, whose socially conscious work often reflects the composition of classical masterpieces, produced Woman Reading a Possession Order in 1998, showing a woman in a squat in Hackney with her baby, in a conscious reference to Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Will Tom Hunter now revisit his Kobal Photographic Portrait Award winning work to reveal a hidden image on the wall?