A hidden Vermeer – within a Vermeer – uncovered

A hidden Vermeer – within a Vermeer – uncovered
X-ray fluorescence analysis Johannes Vermeer, Girl reading a letter at the open window, c. 1657-1659, oil on canvas, Old Masters Picture Gallery © SKD, Photo: Maria Körber.
Leading lights  -   Curators

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, one of Vermeer’s best-known and loved paintings, is getting a facelift and once it’s complete there will be an old addition new to everyone today. After 250 years in hiding, a nude cupid figure is being revealed thanks to painstakingly tedious restorative work.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl reading a letter at the open window, c. 1657-1659 Current state of the restoration on May 7, 2019, oil on canvas, Old Masters Picture Gallery. © SKD, photo: Wolfgang Kreische.

The figure was covered up years after Vermeer’s death and only rediscovered about 40 years ago. However, when researchers first saw the figure through the layers of paint concealing it thanks to x-ray technologies, they assumed the cupid was covered up by Vermeer. In recent years, though, researchers realized that the cupid might be a part of the painting as an image within an image. They discovered that, without a doubt, the figure was painted by Vermeer and covered up decades later. The colour used to paint over the figure was slightly darker than the rest of the wall to compensate for the varnish used by Vermeer, which, overtime, had darkened. ‘There was even a layer of dirt above the original varnish on the Cupid, showing the painting had been in its original state for decades,’ said Uta Neidhardt, senior conservator at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden.

The painting, which was completed in 1657, is one of only 35 confirmed paintings by Vermeer. It has been a part of Dresden’s municipal collection for more than 275 years and is known for its contemplative, subdued tones. As for the painting of the cupid within Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, thanks to a 1676 inventory of his possessions by his widow, scholars believe it to have been a real painting that was part of Vermeer’s belongings. Vermeer had a knack for painting other paintings into his works to offer insight to the scenario. In the case of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, the painting of the cupid is ‘the only clue suggesting a love story,’ said Neidhardt. ‘The elements of disguise and concealment play a less dominant role in this early work by Vermeer than the composition whose background was changed by another hand led us to believe.’

 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading the Book by the Open Window, c. 1657-1659, oil on canvas© SKD, Photo: Klut / Estel.

 

In 2018, it was decided that the overpainting would be removed to reveal the painting in the way that Vermeer intended. That decision came after Christoph Schölzel, a painting restorer in Dresden, began working on the painting to hopefully remove a yellowing layer of varnish. While working on the painting, it went through a number of lab tests at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts and x-ray fluorescence examinations with assistance from the Rijksmuseum. That was when it was definitely decided that the cupid was original to the work. Schölzel, with a panel of experts advising the process, is now working to remove the added paint layer with a microscope and scalpel. The work is far from over at this point, and may take as much as another year to complete. However, the painting in its current state went on view at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister im Semperbau in Dresden on May 8th and will be on display until June 16th.

‘This is the most sensational experience of my career,’ continued Neidhardt. ‘It makes it a different painting.’

In the workshop Johannes Vermeer, Girl reading a letter at the open window, around 1657-1659, oil on canvas, Old Masters Picture Gallery .© SKD, Photo: Jürgen Lange.
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