A Restored Vermeer Painting Reveals a Portrait of a Cupid Hidden for Over 350 Years

Botched art restora­tions make good head­lines, but rarely are we asked to con­sid­er if a posthu­mous change to a great mas­ter’s work rep­re­sents an improve­ment. And yet, when images of a restored Girl Read­ing a Let­ter at an Open Win­dow by Jan Ver­meer cir­cu­lat­ed recent­ly, the world had the chance to com­pare the restored orig­i­nal paint­ing, at the left, with an unknown painter’s revi­sion, long thought to be Ver­meer’s work. (Click here to view the paint­ings side by side in a larg­er for­mat.) Sev­er­al peo­ple announced that they pre­ferred the doc­tored paint­ing on the right, first attrib­uted to Ver­meer in 1880 (and pre­vi­ous­ly attrib­uted to Dutch mas­ters Rem­brandt and Hals).

As con­ser­va­tors found at the con­clu­sion of a restora­tion project begun in 2017, it is the paint­ing on the left that Ver­meer intend­ed as his final state­ment on the sub­ject of a girl read­ing a let­ter at an open win­dow. That paint­ing puts the sub­ject in a very dif­fer­ent light. The naked Cupid behind the young woman — in place of an ambigu­ous­ly dour patch of beige — revis­es over a cen­tu­ry of art his­tor­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion. “With the recov­ery of Cupid in the back­ground, the actu­al inten­tion of the Delft painter becomes rec­og­niz­able,” says Stephan Koja, direc­tor of the Old Mas­ters Pic­ture Gallery.

Art his­to­ri­ans and con­ser­va­tors had long known the oth­er paint­ing was under­neath, hav­ing dis­cov­ered it via X‑ray in 1979. But they assumed it was Ver­meer him­self who made the change. “As it was not uncom­mon for artists to paint over their work,” My Mod­ern Met writes, “schol­ars ini­tial­ly accept­ed that Ver­meer had sim­ply changed his mind and decid­ed to keep the wall bare.” Instead, thanks to the 2017 restora­tion project, “researchers were able to con­clude that the over­paint­ing was com­plet­ed over sev­er­al decades after the can­vas was fin­ished.”

“Ver­meer often incor­po­rat­ed emp­ty back­grounds in his genre paint­ings,” a fea­ture that has become some­thing of a hall­mark thanks to the fame of paint­ings like The Milk­maid. This is one rea­son the Cupid went under­cov­er for so long, despite an unbal­anced com­po­si­tion with­out it. But Ver­meer also incor­po­rat­ed back­grounds filled with art, includ­ing the same Cupid paint­ing, which appears in his less­er known A Young Woman Stand­ing at a Vir­ginal and may have been a paint­ing he him­self owned. “There has been much spec­u­la­tion,” the Nation­al Gallery notes, that this paint­ing (and anoth­er, sim­i­lar­ly titled work) rep­re­sent “fideli­ty” and “a venal, mer­ce­nary approach to love.” What approach might be sug­gest­ed by the new­ly restored Girl Read­ing a Let­ter at an Open Win­dow?

via Colos­sal

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

See the Com­plete Works of Ver­meer in Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty: Google Makes Them Avail­able on Your Smart­phone

A 10 Bil­lion Pix­el Scan of Vermeer’s Mas­ter­piece Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring: Explore It Online

A Gallery of 1,800 Gigapix­el Images of Clas­sic Paint­ings: See Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Ear­ring, Van Gogh’s Star­ry Night & Oth­er Mas­ter­pieces in Close Detail

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Scott Preston says:

    Dutch painters of that peri­od often used and reused sym­bol­ism to express what is going on in the minds of rhe peo­ple in the pic­ture. The Cupid is obvi­ous, she was read­ing a love let­ter. Anoth­er paint­ing from that peri­od showed a man being served a drink in a tav­ern by a bux­om wait­ress and two dogs were cop­u­lat­ing in the back­ground.

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