A Vermeer Painting Restored to Original Composition

After a four-year restoration, the Vermeer painting “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” is now on display again.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window, 1657-59. Condition after the restoration. © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Wolfgang Kreische (detail)
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window, 1657-59. Condition after the restoration. © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Wolfgang Kreische (detail)

In 1979 it was discovered through an X-ray that the back wall in Johannes (Jan) Vermeer's (1632-1675) painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was originally not as empty and bare as was previously believed. In fact, under a layer of paint, there was a “painting-within-a-painting” showing a victorious Cupid trampling the masks of disguise with his feet.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window, 1657-59. Condition after the restoration. © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Wolfgang Kreische
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window, 1657-59. Condition after the restoration. © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Wolfgang Kreische

Since it was assumed that it was Vermeer himself who had made the change to his own composition, the painting was left as is. In 2017, however, the experts of a restoration and research project discovered that the covering layer of paint was a few decades younger than the actual painting. 

Related: A Cupid Revealed in a Vermeer Painting after 300 Years

The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden worked together with the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam for an X-ray fluorescence analysis of the painting, which has been in Dresden since 1742, to confirm these results. In 2018, the decision was made to remove the layer of paint applied by another hand to expose the original composition devised by Vermeer.

For centuries, the portrait of Cupid in Vermeer's "Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window" was painted over. Photo in the public domain
For centuries, the portrait of Cupid in Vermeer's "Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window" was painted over. Photo in the public domain

The restoration work has now been completed, so Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window will be the highlight of the exhibition “Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection" at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden next month.

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Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, from 1657-59 is one of the earliest paintings by Vermeer with which he made the change from historical to genre painting. 

“With the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Vermeer has found his very own style, said Stephan Koja, director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. "It stands at the beginning of a series of paintings in which individuals, mostly women, pause during an activity, come to rest, reflect. In it, Vermeer addresses basic questions about our existence. This is also the case in our picture: With the recovery of Cupid in the background, the Delft painter's actual intention becomes recognizable. Beyond the ostensibly amorous context, it is about a fundamental statement about the nature of true love. So before that we only looked at a rudiment. Now we understand it as a key image in his oeuvre."

Related: New Secrets Revealed About Girl with a Pearl Earring

Many elements and objects appear in Letter Reading Girl at the Open Window that were also used in Vermeer's subsequent paintings.

Jan Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, 1657, oil on canvas, 50.48 cm × 46.04 cm, Frick Collection, New York. Image in the public domain
Jan Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, 1657, oil on canvas, 50.48 cm × 46.04 cm, Frick Collection, New York. Image in the public domain

As you can see from the window, the young woman is in the same room where Officer and Laughing Girl (1657). Both women also wear the same black and yellow bodice that was used in the paintings The Music Lesson (1662-65) and The Concert (1665/66). The chair crowned by two lions' heads and the oriental carpet are also recurring props in Vermeer's compositions.

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Jan Vermeer, Lady Standing at a Virginal, 1673-75, oil on canvas, 51.5 cm x 45.5 cm, National Gallery, London. Image in the public domain
Jan Vermeer, Lady Standing at a Virginal, 1673-75, oil on canvas, 51.5 cm x 45.5 cm, National Gallery, London. Image in the public domain

Even the now visible Cupid is no stranger: He adorns the back wall of the painting Lady Standing at a Virginal from 1673-75 in a slightly modified representation. In fact, paintings and maps are depicted in almost every work by Vermeer. And even the subject of the letter reader was taken up again by Jan Vermeer with the painting Woman Reading a Letter in 1663.

Jan Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, 1663, oil on canvas, 46.6 cm × 39.1 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Image in the public domain
Jan Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, 1663, oil on canvas, 46.6 cm × 39.1 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Image in the public domain

Woman Reading a Letter and Lady Standing at a Virginal will join Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window for the exhibit Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection, which can be visited from September 10, 2021 to January 2, 2022 in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden.

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