A Vermeer Restoration Reveals a God of Desire

DRESDEN, Germany — After practically three centuries behind a layer of paint, a bare Cupid has surfaced in a single of the world’s best-loved artworks, drastically altering the background of a quiet inside scene.

The plump, golden-locked god in Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window,” was revealed in a restoration venture that Stephan Koja, director of the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden, Germany, described as “a detective story and an adventure.”

The portray is the main focus of an exhibition on the gallery, to be opened on Thursday by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, and working by Jan. 2. It is one of simply 35 works definitively attributed to Vermeer: The Dresden present, referred to as “Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection,” unites 10 of them alongside works by contemporaries from whom Vermeer discovered, together with Pieter de Hooch and Gerard ter Borch.

Ever since an X-ray of “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” was made greater than 40 years in the past, students have been conscious of the Cupid, who stares out of a portray throughout the portray. The part, within the higher proper of the canvas, was hidden underneath a rectangle of paint behind the woman’s head. But they’d at all times assumed that Vermeer had erased the god himself.

The restoration in Dresden took a 12 months and a half, working inch by inch with a scalpel and a regular hand underneath a microscope.Credit…Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

So when curators on the Dresden State Art Collections, which oversees the Old Masters Picture Gallery, first determined to revive the portray in 2017, there have been no plans to reveal him. But the rectangle responded in another way from the remaining of the portray to a solvent that restorers used to take away the varnish, Koja mentioned in an interview.

That recommended the paint contained totally different parts from Vermeer’s, making it extra seemingly that it was utilized by one other hand. The darker shade additionally recommended a later artist may need tried to match the unique paint after it had darkened with age.

The museum appointed an advisory panel of Vermeer consultants and restorers. The group agreed that eradicating microscopic samples from the portray for testing was justified — a resolution, Koja mentioned, to not be taken flippantly. Analysis of the tiny fragments gave conclusive proof that the Cupid was overpainted years — even a long time — after Vermeer accomplished the work within the late 1650s, Koja mentioned.

“We found a layer of varnish with dirt on top of it” that will need to have gathered later, Koja added. “It was clear the top layer of paint wasn’t by Vermeer. It was a distortion by a foreign hand against the intention of the artist.”

After the knowledgeable panel gave the go-ahead, restorers uncovered a strip beneath the painted rectangle, about half an inch extensive. Not solely was the brushwork on the Cupid unmistakably Vermeer’s, it was additionally nonetheless in glorious situation, Koja mentioned.

“The results of the tests were so overwhelming that it was clear what we had to do,” he mentioned. The panel agreed that Christoph Schölzel, a portray restorer on the Dresden museum, ought to expose the Cupid in full. Schölzel took a 12 months and a half, working inch by inch with a scalpel and a regular hand underneath a microscope.

The revealed Cupid tramples on a masks, a image of deception, to indicate that love conquers deceit and dishonesty.Credit…Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Koja mentioned the portray had gained one thing, not solely in phrases of composition and colour steadiness, but additionally with respect to its content material. While the blush on the woman’s cheeks beforehand made clear that she was studying a love letter, the god of need on the wall provides a message in regards to the form of love Vermeer may need meant. His Cupid is proven trampling on a masks, a image of deception, to indicate that love conquers deceit and dishonesty.

The picture-within-a-picture additionally connects the work to Vermeer’s later inside scenes, many of which painting figures by home windows, flooded in gentle. These usually seize a second wherein the topic is misplaced in thought, alone, generally within the center of a home activity. Paintings or maps on the partitions behind them add to the viewer’s understanding of the characters’ interior life.

The similar Cupid seems in three different Vermeer work, together with “Young Woman Standing at a Virginal,” which can also be within the Dresden present and is on mortgage from the National Gallery in London. But on this work, there isn’t a masks crushed underneath Cupid’s foot — as a substitute he holds what seems like a letter. In “Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” which the Frick Collection in New York has despatched to Europe on mortgage for the primary time for the Dresden present, the Cupid looms over the couple within the foreground, leaving no room for doubt about their ideas.

The similar Cupid seems in Vermeer’s “Young Woman Standing at a Virginal.”Credit…National Gallery, LondonIn “Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” which is owned by the Frick Collection, the Cupid’s presence leaves little doubt in regards to the pictured couple’s ideas.Credit…Frick Collection

It is probably going that the Cupid was primarily based on a actual portray in Vermeer’s possession. An stock of his property, which included about 50 work, mentions “a Cupid.” While the portray has not been positioned or recognized, the curators say they imagine that it was in all probability a modern work by the Dutch painter Caesar van Everdingen. (Another Cupid portray by that artist is on show within the Dresden exhibition.)

Some mysteries stay. It will not be clear precisely who painted over the god — nor why, or when — though we all know that different Vermeer work had been altered by later generations to satisfy modern tastes. The discovery has additionally prompted hypothesis about one other of his works, “Woman With a Pearl Necklace,” which is within the assortment of the Berlin State Museums.

The lady in that portray, wearing yellow trimmed with ermine, stands in entrance of a mirror, her fingers on the ribbons at both finish of the necklace, in a second of quiet introspection. Behind her is a stark white wall. Analysis has proven that a map hanging on the wall was painted over — however by whom?

Analysis has proven that a map on the wall in “Woman With a Pearl Necklace” had additionally been painted over.Credit…National Museums in Berlin — Prussian Cultural Heritage, Picture Gallery

Uta Neidhardt, chief restorer for Dutch portray within the Dresden State Art Collections, mentioned it might have been carried out by Vermeer himself, however added, “Our colleagues in Berlin are bound to face a lot of questions.”

Koja mentioned that the Dresden staff could be completely satisfied to help if curators in Berlin determined to analyze extra intently. But Katja Kleinert, the official answerable for 17th-century Dutch and Flemish portray on the Berlin State Museums, mentioned that evaluation performed lower than 20 years in the past confirmed that the map — in contrast to the Dresden Cupid — was by no means painted to completion.

“It was only sketched,” she mentioned. “We are pretty sure our wall was painted by Vermeer.”

Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection
Through Jan. 2, 2022, on the Old Masters Picture Gallery, in Dresden, Germany; gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum.