As It Happens

Johannes Vermeer painting restored to reveal portrait of Cupid in once-bare background

The restoration of a 17th-century portrait by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer has uncovered a large portrait of Cupid in its background where once only a bare white wall stood.

We now know the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is reading a love letter, says curator

Left: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, newly restored to reveal a portrait of Cupid in the background. Right: The painting before the restoration, showing a blank white wall. (Wolfgang Kreische/Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden)

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The restoration of a 17th-century portrait by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer has uncovered a large portrait of Cupid in its background where once only a bare white wall stood.

The painting, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, was completed somewhere between 1657 and 1659. The title rather plainly describes the scene depicted, where a young woman reads a crumpled piece of paper in a bedroom decorated with a large green curtain, lavishly coloured bedding and a bowl of fruit.

"Behind [the girl] there was an empty white wall. But in 2017, we started with a big restoration and research project to do the restoration of the painting," Uta Neidhardt, senior curator at Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, Germany, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

The restoration found that the wall once featured a large portrait of Cupid, the god of love. But it had been removed by "overpainting" to leave only a blank wall.

The picture of Cupid had actually been discovered by an X-ray image of the painting taken in 1979. But new laboratory tests determined the overpainting had been done about 70 years after the artwork was completed — long after Vermeer's death in 1675.

In 1979, an X-ray image of the work revealed a completely overpainted 'picture in the picture' showing a naked Cupid on the wall of the room in the background. (Jens Meyer/The Associated Press)

"So that means the painting was by another hand," Neidhardt, who oversaw the painting's restoration, said.

The discovery that the alterations were made years after Vermeer's death helped spur the decision to restore it to its original, intended form.

Why was the painting altered?

Art historians at the time believed Vermeer himself painted over the feature some time after it was initially completed. The painter has done that in several other instances, Neidhardt explained, even elsewhere in this very work.

"He, for instance, over-painted a big glass in the foreground by the green curtain. And he turned the figure of the girl a little bit more to the wall. And so he did a lot of little and bigger changes in the painting himself," she said. 

One possible theory for Cupid's removal may have come from the fact that Girl Reading a Letter was misattributed to other artists in the past, including Rembrandt.

Uta Neidhardt is head conservator and exhibition curator at Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, Germany. (Submitted by Uta Neidhardt)

The painting was presented to a Saxon prince's court in Dresden in the 1740s. Neidhardt says the painting may have been altered to remove details that aren't typical in works by Rembrandt, as owning a painting by that master Dutch artist would be seen as a high badge of honour.

Neidhardt stressed, however, that this is only a theory, and the true reason for the change has not been uncovered.

'It's a love letter, of course'

Cupid's presence gives new meaning and context to Girl Reading a Letter as a whole, Neidhardt said. Since the piece of paper the woman is holding is illegible, it was impossible to know what — if anything — she was reading.

"But now, we know that it's a love letter, of course," Neidhardt said. 

The portrait also holds clues that connect the painting to Vermeer's other works, she said. In the image, Cupid is standing on a mask. That motif was well-known in 17th-century Europe, showing up in so-called emblem books that contained several combinations of images and explanations of their meanings.

The emblem of Cupid standing on a mask conveys the lesson "that only real love is able to prevent bad feelings or bad emotions," Neidhardt said. 

Restorer Christoph Schoelzel explains the restoration process while it was underway in the Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister on May 7, 2019. (Jens Meyer/The Associated Press)

What's more, she added, the new detail ties the work to three other Vermeer paintings, which all include a picture-in-picture portrait of Cupid.

The newly restored Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window will make its second debut, of sorts, in September as part of the Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection exhibit at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.

Neidhardt is eagerly anticipating visitors' reactions to the restoration, but admits that some longtime art buffs might be taken aback by it.

She says being the head of the restoration project is perhaps the most important highlight in her career.

"I've been working here for 25 years, but that's never happened before," she said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Kate Cornick.

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