Restoration of Vermeer painting reveals hidden secret

Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister has revealed the first full image of a Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) painting after undergoing major restoration. Conservators have finally uncovered a hidden painting of Cupid, peering out from behind a vibrant green curtain, within one of Vermeer’s most famous artworks.

The extensive restoration project was launched in 2019 to meticulously unveil the Cupid, concealed for centuries, in ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’. Senior conservator Uta Neidhardt said it was “the most sensational experience of my career… it makes it a different painting.”

Executed in 1657, the painting was acquired by the museum more than 250 years ago. Initially the painting was mistakenly attributed to Rembrandt (1606-1669), then to Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), until in 1880 scholars announced that it was in fact by Vermeer. By 1979, the Cupid had been discovered using x-ray analysis, clarified further in 2009 by infrared reflectography.

It was first assumed the artist himself had altered the composition, but four years ago conservators discovered the overpaint had been added by another person. Layers of binding agent and a layer of dirt between the image of Cupid and the overpainting suggested that the addition was made several decades later. Using a scalpel under a microscope, conservators began the process of removing the layer of overpaint.

Confidently holding the viewer’s gaze, Cupid now appears above the titular woman in a painting hanging on the wall of her room. Scholars have dubbed it the “new” Vermeer, since the inclusion of Cupid suggests the woman is in fact reading a love letter.

With the recovery of the Cupid in the background, only the actual intention of the Delft painter becomes apparent,” explained Stephan Koja, director of the Gemäldegalerie. “Beyond the superficially amorous context, it is a fundamental statement about the essence of true love.”

The painting will be displayed for the first time since its restoration in a major exhibition titled ‘Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection’ (10 September-2 January 2022) at the Gemäldegalerie. Also included in the exhibition is ‘A Young Woman standing at a Virginal’ from The National Gallery in London, in which Vermeer has painted a similar image of Cupid in the background.

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