Restored Vermeer painting finally reveals Cupid hidden in the background

Enlarge / A new restoration by Johannes Vermeer Girl reading a letter at an open window revealed a Cupid in the background. The restored painting will be the centerpiece of a new exhibition at Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany from September 10, 2021 to January 2, 2022.

Since 1979, art historians have known that the work of Johannes Vermeer Girl reading a letter at an open window (circa 1657-1659) featured a repainted figure of a Cupid in the background. Most assumed that Vermeer himself had painted on the face. Now, thanks to a major restoration by the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Germany, the painting has been removed to reveal Cupid. This process also revealed that someone else painted on Cupid in the 18th century, after the artist’s death, causing an overhaul of how painting should be interpreted. The fully restored canvas is now on public display for the first time at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, one of the many galleries that make up the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

The use of various X-ray imaging techniques, especially synchrotron radiation, has become a powerful tool for the non-destructive analysis of great works of art. For example, European scientists in 2008 used synchrotron radiation to reconstruct the hidden portrait of a peasant woman painted by Vincent van Gogh. The artist (known to reuse his canvases) had painted on them when he created the years 1887 Patch of grass. The synchrotron radiation excites the atoms on the web, which then emit their own X-rays which can be picked up by a fluorescence detector. Each element of the paint has its own x-ray signature, so scientists can identify the distribution of each in the many layers of paint.

In 2019, we reported on the work of a team of Dutch and French scientists who used high-energy x-rays to uncover Rembrandt’s secret recipe for his famous impasto technique, which was believed to have been lost to history. And in 2020, an international team of scientists used synchrotron radiation to determine the cause of the alarming signs of degradation in Edvard Munch’s famous painting. The Scream. The team’s analysis revealed that the damage was not the result of exposure to light, but to moisture, especially from the breath of museum visitors, possibly when bending down to take a closer look at the brush strokes of the master.

Formerly wrongly attributed to Rembrandt, the Girl reading a letter at an open window is one of the earliest known examples of the Dutch master’s use of stippling, a technique similar to embossing or engraving that involves punching dots. It was popular in the 15th century for decorating armor and guns, and was used on handmade book bindings in the 17th century. Vermeer’s version incorporated tiny white blood cells of paint to capture the effects of light. It is sometimes cited as evidence that Vermeer used optical aids, most likely a camera obscura or double concave lens, although this remains a controversial hypothesis.

Paint samples were analyzed in the 1960s, revealing nothing unusual in the artist’s choice of materials. He used pigments common in the Baroque era, including blue azurite, lead-tin yellow, vermilion, madder lacquer, and lead white. The painting was first subjected to X-ray analysis in 1979, revealing the Cupid lurking beneath the overpaint and making another example of Vermeer’s “paint in a paint” canvases. Scientists have submitted Girl reading a letter infrared reflectography in 2009, and in preparation for this latest restoration, the painting was examined by fluorescent X-ray macro-scanning – to map the distribution of the elements – and also by stereomicroscopy.

Curator Christoph Scholzel first removed several coats of varnish, first applied in the 19th century and renewed several times, which had gradually turned yellowish brown over time. It was then that he noticed that the paints used in the central backdrop where Cupid was hidden had different solubility properties than those used elsewhere. Subsequent analysis showed that there were old layers of a binding agent, as well as a layer of dirt, between the paints in this area and the paints used by the Dutch master. This implies that several decades must have passed between Vermeer Girl reading a letter and the painting of Cupid. The latter could not have been done by Vermeer.

Based on this finding, the decision was made to remove the paint to restore Girl reading a letter as Vermeer had planned. For this, Scholzel used a thin scalpel, monitoring the process under a microscope in order to retain what is probably the last layer of original varnish applied by the artist himself. Here’s what the once-blank background of the painting now represents, by hyperallergic:

The blond god of love and desire holds a bow in his right hand and looks at the viewer from the picture on the wall, surrounded by a thick black frame. On the ground behind him are two masks, possible symbols of deception; Cupid tramples one of them with his right foot in an allegory of loyalty and true love. Vermeer’s famous ethereal light streams through the open window, lending the scene a transcendent spiritual glow.

“It’s in Girl reading a letter as Vermeer discovers his own distinct style. It marks the beginning of a series of paintings in which individuals, usually women, stop during an activity to find a moment of calm and reflection, ”said museum director Stephan Koja. The true intention of Delft. Beyond the superficial romantic context, it makes a fundamental statement about the nature of true love. Until now, we could only see this as a fragment. We now know what a key role he plays in his work. “

From a technical point of view, “The change in appearance of the Girl reading a letter at an open window, including the overpaint removed from the edges of the canvas, gives us the opportunity to reconsider the composition of the painting and its visual functioning, ”said Uta Neidhardt, chief curator and curator of the exhibition. with a real wooden frame, which is why he left them in such an “open” state. If one assumes that he had planned to use such a construction, one immediately recalls the experimental works of the church interior painters of Delft, with their trompe-l’oeil curtains, or the intricate interiors of Pieter de Hooch.

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