After three years of painstaking work, an added layer of paint that obscured an image of Cupid on a famous painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer has been fully removed . Only now can Vermeer’s 17 th century masterpiece ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ finally be seen in its fully restored form, now including a critically important feature that helps explain the true meaning of this previously enigmatic painting.
The hidden Cupid was originally discovered in 1979, when Vermeer’s composition was analyzed with X-rays at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, Germany. This finding was confirmed in 2009, when infrared reflectography gave museum officials an even clearer look at the obscured image, that when uncovered would have dominated the upper center section of the picture
The painting has been hanging in the museum’s gallery for most of the last 250 years. Untold numbers of art enthusiasts have come to gaze at one of Vermeer’s acclaimed works during the time it has been on display. But none ever suspected there was an image of Cupid hidden beneath a layer of paint on a blank back wall.
When museum conservators discovered the image’s presence, they assumed it been covered by Vermeer himself. This type of self-editing is not uncommon in art, even among those who are considered masters. But when the painting was taken in for restoration work in 2017, the truth was revealed.
During the initial stages of the restoration work, conservators discovered that the paint covering Cupid had different qualities than the paint around it. The painting was taken into a laboratory for further study, and it was revealed that layers of a binding agent and dirt could be found between the image of Cupid and the added paint. This proved the re-painting couldn’t have occurred during the 1657-59 timeframe when Vermeer originally created ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window,’ but must have happened several decades later. This would have been long after Vermeer’s death in 1675, eliminating the possibility that he was involved in the process in any way.
For the first time, the museum realized that Vermeer had not voluntary altered his masterpiece to eliminate Cupid. He had wanted that prominent image to be seen, and without it people had been attempting to interpret the painting’s message with important visual information missing.
What Cupid Reveals
In ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’, the picture of Cupid hangs on the back wall over and behind the girl (young woman) who is the subject of Vermeer’s painting. It covers more than half the vertical length of the picture and was clearly intended to be a major aspect of the work.
So, what exactly does the presence of the “portrait-within-a-portrait” of Cupid reveal? Nothing less than the actual meaning of the picture, according to the experts at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
“With the recovery of Cupid in the background, the actual intention of the Delft painter can be recognized,’ museum director Stephan Koja told the Telegraph . “’Beyond the ostensibly amorous context, it is about a fundamental statement about the nature of true love.”
Koja explained that what the girl was reading was undoubtedly a love letter. Meanwhile, Cupid is carrying a bow and standing on top of two discarded masks. The masks would have represented the past denial of two people involved in a romantic relationship (the young woman reading the letter and the person who wrote it), which has been cast aside as they’ve now given in to their deep feelings of love and devotion.
The reason for the past denial is revealed by the open window in the painting, and by the bowl of fruit sitting on the bed. Art experts say the former is a symbolic expression of the young woman’s desire to escape the limits of her domestic lifestyle, while the latter is understood as a symbol of extramarital relations (a type of forbidden fruit).
With Cupid on display, it seems the young woman is ready to embrace her true romantic destiny, even if it means leaving her old life behind.
“Now we understand it [Cupid] as a key image in his oeuvre,” Koja stated.
Without the image of Cupid being revealed, the true meaning of ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ would have always remained uncertain. Officials at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister say they have no idea why the person who painted over the image did what they did, but they are thankful they’ve finally been able to restore Vermeer’s masterpiece to its original form.
It should be noted that Vermeer included images of Cupid on four of his 34 officially recognized paintings. This shows his inclination to make use of the iconic image of Cupid to symbolize romantic feelings in various contexts.
Who Was Johannes Vermeer?
Johannes Vermeer achieved some measure of recognition during his lifetime, mostly in and around his hometown of Delft in the Netherlands. He painted scenes largely associated with middle class life, but with an evocative or poetic aspect that addressed timeless themes related to human frustrations and desires.
After his death in 1675, Vermeer faded into obscurity. It wasn’t until the 19 th century that Vermeer’s art was rediscovered by art collectors and finally given its due as the work of a true genius.
In company with Rembrandt Frans Hals, and many others, Vermeer is now recognized as one of the leading lights of what is referred to as the Golden Age of Dutch painting. This era covers much of the 17 th century, although the majority of the great works of Golden Age Dutch artists were painted during the second half of the century.
This era was marked by the end of the Eighty Years’ War in 1648, which led to Dutch independence from Spain and helped set the stage for a significant rise in the nation’s economic standing. As the most prosperous country in Europe at that time, the new Dutch Republic was able to support a vigorous and active arts scene, which helped the benefit many skilled painters. Vermeer’s efforts weren’t supported quite as enthusiastically as some others during his lifetime, but he is currently acknowledged as one of the finest and most innovative artists that the Netherlands has ever produced.
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (around 1657-59) after its restoration restoration © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, SKD, Photo: Wolfgang Kreische
The Rebirth of a Masterpiece, and the Master who Painted It
The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister has created a special exhibition to re-introduce what they are calling a “new” Vermeer to the art-loving public. The fully restored ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ will be on display alongside nine other Vermeer paintings, plus an additional selection of 40 highly regarded works painted by Dutch artists during the second half of the 17 th century.
Some of the Vermeer paintings have been loaned to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister by other well-known art museums, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery in London. This signifies that across the art world, the unveiling of the true ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ is recognized as an important event worthy of being celebrated. The publicity surrounding the picture’s restoration has helped generate even more interest in the works of a great painter who was already held in high esteem by art aficionados everywhere.
Top image: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (around 1657-59) before its most recent restoration (left) and after (right). © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, SKD, Photo: Wolfgang Kreische
By Nathan Falde