Vermeer Restoration, Finally Complete, Reveals a Painting Within a Painting

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Vermeer Restoration, Finally Complete, Reveals a Painting Within a Painting

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” (1657-59) before and after restoration. (© Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; photos by Klut/Estel and Wolfgang Kreische)

The female figure in Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” (1657-59), art historians have long known, is not exactly alone in the room. As early as 1979, x-rays revealed a painting of a full-length cupid hanging on the wall behind her, partly shielded by a silky green trompe l’oeil curtain pulled to the side. This picture-within-a-picture, a hallmark of the artist’s opulent renderings of Dutch interiors, was further confirmed using infrared photography.

But until recently, experts assured us Vermeer had painted over the chubby amorini himself. In 2019, laboratory tests led to a shocking discovery: the cupid imagery was covered up by someone other than the artist, likely decades after its completion. Conservators at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, where the painting has resided for over 250 years, decided to return the work to its original state, removing the layers of varnish and overpaint concealing the original composition.

Restoration of Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an open Window” (1657-59) (© Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, SKD; photo by Wolfgang Kreische)

Images of the newly completed restoration, released yesterday by Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, show Vermeer’s intended design. The blond-haired god of love and desire holds a bow in his right hand and gazes out at the viewer from the picture on the wall, enclosed by a thick black frame. On the floor behind him are two masks, possible symbols of deception; Cupid tramples over one of them with his right foot in an allegory of faithfulness and true love. Vermeer’s famous ethereal light streams through the open window, lending the scene a transcendent, spiritual glow.

In the restored version “the Delft painter’s actual intention becomes recognizable,” said museum director Stephan Koja in a statement.

“Beyond the ostensibly amorous context, it is a fundamental statement about the nature of true love,” Koja added. “Before, we only looked at a vestige. Now we understand it as a key image in his oeuvre.”

“Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” will be the centerpiece of Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. The exhibition, on view from September 10 through January 2, 2022, will feature around 50 works of Dutch genre painting, including nine by Vermeer (less than 40 paintings by the artist are known to exist.)

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