A Cupid Revealed in a Vermeer Painting after 300 Years

For nearly three centuries, a cupid hid in the background of Johannes Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. However, the gradual removal of a layer of paint has recently freed the cherub from the shadows. 

A Cupid Revealed in a Vermeer Painting after 300 Years

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is considered one of the first interior scenes by the Dutch master with a single figure. However, in the upper right corner, under a layer of brownish paint, a little angel waited patiently to see the light of day. The presence of Cupid in the composition has been known to historians since 1979, but the inclusion has now been attributed to Vermeer himself. 

In 2017, tests conducted in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam showed that the extra layer of paint covering the cupid was added several decades after the death of the Dutch painter. A first restoration (started in 2017) already removed the coating of a multilayer varnish, which had turned yellowish brown over the centuries, revealing Vermeer's true intention. 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, circa 1657, Staatliche Kunstammlungen, Dresden: before and after restoration (in progress) © SKD, picture: Klut / Estel and © SKD, picture: Wolfgang Kreische
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, circa 1657, Staatliche Kunstammlungen, Dresden: before and after restoration (in progress) © SKD, picture: Klut / Estel and © SKD, picture: Wolfgang Kreische

The lightening of the varnish also demonstrated that the colour's solubility properties in the central part of the background were different from those in other areas of the composition, which suggested that something was hiding underneath.

Following the recent discovery, the Staatliche Kunstammlungen museum in Dresden, which owns the painting, has decided to start a second restoration that should be completed in 2020. Christoph Scholzel, in charge of the operation, is gradually removing the painted layer with a scalpel, and at the moment, only a part of the cherub emerges from the shadows.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, circa 1657, Staatliche Kunstammlungen, Dresden, picture © SKD / Wolfgang Kreische
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, circa 1657, Staatliche Kunstammlungen, Dresden, picture © SKD / Wolfgang Kreische

"It's a long-term job that progresses an average of one cubic centimetre per day," explains the museum. But it is also the best way to preserve the original painting that dates to 1657. 

Restoration of the work from the report on the process, published by © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
Restoration of the work from the report on the process, published by © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

The project, led by an international commission of experts, is partly funded by the Hata Foundation. After the restoration, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is planned to be on display in Dresden as part of the permanent exhibition of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. The canvas can be admired in its intermediate state there until 16 June 2019.

The appearance of the god of love transforms the interpretation of the work: the girl is now counterbalanced by Cupid's silhouette in the background, so the scene takes on a more romantic tone. Vermeer is perhaps implying that the girl is reading a love note or that she is engaged.

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