Johannes Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657–59) was recently undergoing restoration when conservators made a groundbreaking revelation. Forty years ago, X-rays had discovered an earlier version of the painting was dominated by a large image of Cupid that comes in the form of a painting within the painting. It was assumed that Vermeer himself had painted over the figure before the work was finished.
However, recent technology has shown that the Cupid image was overpainted long after the artist’s death. The painting by the Dutch Golden Age master, one of only 35 paintings attributed to him, is considered one of the most famous paintings of all time and is one of the crown jewels of Dresden’s city collection. It has been decided that Vermeer’s Cupid will be restored to the work.
There was even a layer of dirt above the original varnish on the Cupid, showing the painting had been in its original state for decades. [. . .] This is the most sensational experience of my career [. . .] It makes it a different painting.
Neidhardt also noted that fans of the pre-restoration painting may miss the quietude of the solidly colored background that we have known and admired for many hundreds of years.
What’s more amazing, the same ars-poetic image of Cupid is featured prominently in another Vermeer painting, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (1670–72), housed in London’s National Gallery. This has led scholars to believe the Cupid may be based on a real painting owned by Vermeer. An inventory of his widow’s belongings includes a mention of an item referred to as “a Cupid.”
Christoph Schölzel, Dresden’s painting restorer, has already begun work restoring the painting. It’s purported to be in good condition, though a layer of varnish that darkened with age turned the painting’s subtle colors yellowish, and Schölzel’s first task is to focus on this. His work will require a microscope and a scalpel, allowing him to scrape off overpaint without removing the original varnish. Thus far, Cupid remains about half-exposed. The work will be displayed in its transitional, semi-restored state from May 8th to June 16th at Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.