For round three centuries, the woman studying a letter in the dimly-lit solitude of a Johannes Vermeer portray gave no indication of what the message contained.
Facing an open window, her determine gently curved as she scanned the notice in her arms, her physique appeared slight towards the vacant wall behind her. But final week, the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany, the place she’s been housed for many of her lengthy life, has lastly unveiled an amorous secret, hidden way back beneath layers of paint.
The unveiling of Cupid, the Roman god of affection who is typically represented as a winged boy, offers the woman’s letter new connotations of affection, longing and need. The portray will go on view at the Gemäldegalerie from September 10 together with 9 of Vermeer’s different main works and 50 work by his Dutch friends.
When the hidden Cupid was first discovered over 4 many years in the past, it was believed the Delft-born artist had himself painted over it. X-rays of different well-known artworks have typically revealed early drafts, and Vermeer was identified to remodel his compositions, believing that the concord of his work mirrored the concord of God, based on Stephan Koja, artwork historian and director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
“It was common sense to think that Vermeer had overpainted this part of his composition because he had done this several times,” Koja stated in a video interview. “He really was a perfectionist trying to get the most calibrated and most convincing composition.”
The restoration course of was painstakingly sluggish. Conservators meticulously eliminated a piece of overpaint over the course of two and a half years. Credit: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
But when conservators started cleansing the portray in 2017, they discovered proof suggesting in any other case. Varnish on the stretch of empty wall behind the younger woman was a distinct shade, and the consistency of the paint was totally different too, Koja stated. When researchers investigated samples in an archaeometry laboratory, they discovered dust hiding in between layers of paint, signaling that another person had added the overpaint a lot later.
“We realized that the dirt meant that the painting was finished; it was exposed to the light and to the circumstances of a room for several decades,” Koja stated. Now, the group concerned consider it was painted over someday in the early 18th century. But as to who did it, they will solely guess.
Not the solely mystery
The hidden Cupid is removed from the solely mystery of the Baroque artist’s life. The painter, like the enigmatic Renaissance grasp Leonardo da Vinci, had a preciously small output, with solely round 34 canvases thought to have survived to as we speak. He’s greatest identified for his delicate inside scenes that includes solitary figures bathed in window gentle, hinting at narratives left deliberately imprecise.
“(With) the single person lost in her thoughts, there’s a certain mystery, so we can relate to the feelings, emotions of the persons we see,” Koja stated. “In a way, none of his contemporaries were able to do that.”
Art historians aren’t certain the place Vermeer realized to color, who he realized from, if he had any college students of his personal or who his topics have been. It is thought that the work above, an alllegory of portray, is a self-portrait along with his daughter. Credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
The identities of Vermeer’s topics are an enigma, too, together with the lady in his most well-known work, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Art historians are additionally nonetheless debating the methods he used to create his optical illusions, significantly the query of whether or not he used a “camera obscura” — a darkish room with a pinhole that initiatives a photographic picture — to create his depth of discipline. It’s not even identified the place Vermeer realized to color or who he realized from — a lineage that is usually well-documented for artwork historical past’s masters.
Who painted over Cupid in “Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window,” or why they did, could by no means be solved. The portray got here from a French assortment in the early 18th century, when Vermeer wasn’t well-known — he had died in deep debt in 1675. Koja urged that the portray could have been modified to extra carefully resemble the work of Rembrandt, probably by the assortment’s Flemish steward, who was additionally an artist.
“Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” illustrates a lot of the identical themes: a solitary determine studying a letter in a well-known home house, lit by the gentle of a window to the left. Credit: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
Altering another person’s portray “was quite typical at the time,” Koja stated. “Paintings have been changed according to taste… Nowadays, we think it’s completely inconceivable how you could touch a Vermeer but others (in) centuries before us were not that hesitant.”
Several different Vermeer work have been inexplicably altered, as properly, Koja defined, from a complete blue sky painted into his early work “Diana and her Companions” to a modified image body in “Woman Holding a Balance.” (Both work have since been restored to their unique compositions.)
A well-recognized face
To get better the Cupid, conservators at Dresden State Art Collections determined to not take away the unique Seventeenth-century varnish, however as a substitute meticulously chipped away at layers of paint with a medical scalpel beneath a microscope with 120x magnification, based on Koja. The course of took two and a half years, with only some sq. millimeters coated every day.
The Cupid they revealed was a well-known one. Standing upright, his left arm raised and his proper arm holding a bow, the blond, chubby cherub has appeared in different Vermeer works. The god of affection performs a supporting function in “Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” housed by the Frick Collection in New York, in addition to in “Young Woman Standing at a Virginal,” which the Dresden museum has borrowed from the National Gallery in London for its new present.
The identical cupid has appeared in different works. According to artwork historian Stephan Koja, Vermeer could have owned the portray it was primarily based on. Credit: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
His look alters the which means of one in every of Vermeer’s most pivotal works — one which represented a significant shift in the artist’s profession. Vermeer’s earliest work weren’t set in up to date middle-class properties, however have been grand works depicting non secular and mythological topics, from Jesus Christ to the goddess Diana. By the late 1650s, nevertheless, he had begun turning his eye to fashionable topics — what turned referred to as “genre paintings” of on a regular basis life which are the hallmark of the Dutch Golden Age.
“‘Girl Reading a Letter By the Window’ is really the essential piece of his transformation from a history painter to the painter of modern life — to the Vermeer we know today,” Koja stated.
Soon after finishing the portray, the artist launched into his most well-known topics and motifs: younger ladies (and the occasional man) misplaced in thought in the quietude of rooms solid with mid-day gentle. The viewer’s presence might be sensed, too, as we peer in on figures enjoying music, studying mysterious letters or considering objects heavy with philosophical which means. Vermeer’s topics are generally interrupted by our presence, turning to stare upon our intrusion.
“What’s so fantastic about Vermeer is that he leaves things open, and leaves them to our imagination,” Koja stated. “And it’s (like) every kind of art — be it music, theater or film. I think you like most of the ones that have a certain mystery to them… like movie directors who give you clues and then let you finish the idea. This is something which Vermeer mastered.”
Motion caption: The restoration of “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.” Photographs courtesy of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.