Vermeer restoration reveals god of desire

DRESDE, Germany – After nearly three centuries behind a coat of paint, a naked Cupid has surfaced in one of the world’s most beloved wor...


DRESDE, Germany – After nearly three centuries behind a coat of paint, a naked Cupid has surfaced in one of the world’s most beloved works of art, radically changing the background of an indoor scene calm.

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

The painting is the subject of an exhibition at the gallery, which will be inaugurated on Thursday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and which will run until January 2. It is one of the 35 works definitively attributed to Vermeer. : The Dresden Show, entitled “Johannes Vermeer: ​​On reflection, brings together 10 alongside works by contemporaries from whom Vermeer learned, including Pieter de Hooch and Gerard Ter Borch.

Ever since an x-ray of “Girl Reading a Letter in Front of an Open Window” was taken over 40 years ago, scholars have been made aware of the existence of Cupid, who looks from a painting inside. of the whiteboard. The section, at the top right of the canvas, was hidden under a rectangle of paint behind the girl’s head. But they had always assumed that Vermeer had erased the god himself.

So when the curators of the Dresden State Art Collections, who oversee the Gallery of Old Masters Paintings, first decided to restore the painting in 2017, there were no plans to exhibit it. . But the rectangle responded differently from the rest of the solvent paint that conservators used to remove varnish, Koja said in an interview.

This suggested that the paint contained different components than Vermeer’s, making it more likely that it had been applied by another hand. The darker shade also suggested that a later artist might have tried to match the original paintwork after it darkened with age.

The museum has appointed an advisory committee of experts and conservators from Vermeer. The group agreed that removing microscopic samples of the paint for testing was warranted – a decision, Koja said, not to be taken lightly. Analysis of the tiny fragments gave conclusive evidence that the Cupid was repainted years – if not decades – after Vermeer completed the work in the late 1650s, Koja said.

“We found a coat of varnish with dirt on it,” which must have built up later, Koja added. “It was clear that the top coat of paint was not from Vermeer. It was a distortion by a foreign hand against the intention of the artist.

After the panel of experts gave the go-ahead, the conservators exposed a strip under the painted rectangle, about half an inch wide. Not only was Cupid’s brush stroke unmistakably Vermeer’s brush stroke, it was also still in excellent condition, Koja said.

“The test results were so impressive it was clear what we needed to do,” he said. The panel agreed that Christoph Schölzel, a conservator of paintings at the Dresden Museum, should exhibit the Cupid in its entirety. Schölzel took a year and a half to work inch by inch with a scalpel and a steady hand under a microscope.

Koja said the painting gained something, not only in terms of composition and color balance, but also in terms of its content. While the blush on the girl’s cheeks was a clear sign that she was reading a love letter, the God of Desire on the wall adds a message about the kind of love Vermeer could have meant. His Cupid is depicted trampling on a mask, a symbol of deception, to show that love triumphs over deception and dishonesty.

Picture-in-picture also connects the work to Vermeer’s later interior scenes, many of which depict figures through windows, flooded with light. These often capture a moment when the subject is lost in thought, alone, sometimes in the middle of a household chore. Paintings or maps on the walls behind them add to the viewer’s understanding of the characters’ inner lives.

The same Cupid appears in three other paintings by Vermeer, including “Young Woman Standing at a Virginal”, which is also part of the Dresden exhibition and is on loan from the National Gallery in London. But in this work, there is no mask crushed under Cupid’s foot – instead, he is holding what looks like a letter. In “Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” which the Frick Collection of New York first loaned in Europe for the Dresden show, Cupid hovers over the couple in the foreground, leaving no doubt in their thoughts.

It is likely that the Cupid was based on a real painting in Vermeer’s possession. An inventory of his estate, which included some fifty paintings, mentions “a Cupid”. Although the painting has not been located or identified, curators say they believe it is likely a contemporary work by Dutch painter Caesar van Everdingen. (Another painting of Cupid by this artist is on display in the Dresden Exhibition.)

Some mysteries remain. It is not known exactly who painted on the god – or why, or when – although we do know that other paintings by Vermeer have been altered by subsequent generations to suit contemporary tastes. The find also sparked speculation about another of her works, “Woman with a Pearl Necklace”, which is in the collection of the Berlin State Museums.

The woman in this painting, dressed in yellow edged with ermine, stands in front of a mirror, her fingers on the ribbons at each end of the necklace, in a moment of quiet introspection. Behind her is a pristine white wall. Analysis showed that a map hanging on the wall was repainted – but by whom?

Uta Neidhardt, chief restorer of Dutch painting in the Dresden State Art Collections, said it could have been done by Vermeer himself, but added: “Our colleagues in Berlin have to deal with many questions. “

Koja said the Dresden team would be happy to help if the conservatives in Berlin decided to investigate further. But Katja Kleinert, head of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting at Berlin State Museums, said an analysis conducted less than two decades ago showed the map – unlike the Dresden Love – no ‘had never been painted until the end.

“It was just a sketch,” she said. “We’re pretty sure our wall was painted by Vermeer.”

Johannes Vermeer: ​​On reflection
Until January 2, 2022, at the Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden, Germany; gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum.

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