When I was single and grumbling about it, my mother used to say, “All it takes is a day.” One shift of the kaleidoscope, one chance meeting, and bitter loneliness drops away and the world glows with promise. That fast, your life has a different direction, a different set of possibilities.
This is how it must have felt, though in a very different context, for the conservators who first X-rayed Johannes Vermeer’s quiet painting, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. She is young and looks thoughtful, concentrated on the sheet of stationery in her hand. I always liked to think of her as the studious sort—denied a future of academic glory because she lived in the sixteenth century, but still deeply interested, perhaps corresponding with a learned friend who does not mock her for venturing outside her proper sphere. Vermeer respects that domestic world—his interiors have a grace to them—just as he respects the interior thoughts and feelings of the women within. He saves them from claustrophobia by using windows to admit that translucent light he paints better than anyone. (Why is what he does so immeasurably different than what Thomas Kinkade, painter of kitschy light, does with those twinkling snow scenes?)
The mood of the painting is solitary but not lonely; restrained, calm, intellectual.
And then the X-ray film is developed.
On the soft neutral wall behind the girl—which is bare, uncluttered, and clean in a way that hints at a much later aesthetic sensibility—there once hung a giant, black-framed painting of a Cupid with blond Prince Valiant bangs. And with that single twist of the kaleidoscope, the whole painting changes. Suddenly, our girl is reading a love letter. The intensity of her concentration has more to do with rapture than with intellect. The solitary quiet is a stolen moment of privacy in which she can reread and savor each word. The blush on her cheeks might be delight, not just health.
Art historians take time to wonder why Vermeer painted out his Cupid. A preference for a simpler backdrop, less cuteness and visual fuss? Surely he did not want to drain the romance from this young woman’s life; he was never cruel. With a collective shrug of their shoulders, they leave Girl Reading a Letter in its place at the Dresden Gemäldegalerie and moved on to study other Vermeers. We know of fewer than forty, after all. It took years after his death for the world to realize his genius—such an old, familiar story.
But the girl. What was he thinking, to steal Eros from her?
In 2017, Christoph Schölzel begins restoring the canvas, and as he removes layers of thick, yellowed varnish, he finds that the paint in the central section has a different solubility than the rest. Then he realizes there are layers of binding agent and a layer of dirt interleaved between the image of Cupid and the overpainting. Alarmed, he sends the painting to the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts for state-of-the-art testing. Multiple and various tests reach the same conclusion: The overpainting was done several decades after Vermeer completed and varnished his work.
The museum director must take a deep breath and make a decision. When the overpainting seemed like Vermeer second-guessing himself, they of course left it intact. But if someone did this without Vermeer’s permission? The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister will remove the layers of varnish and paint, the director announces, and show the work as it was when Vermeer completed it.
Schölzel cannot use solvents to make the job easier; they might dissolve Vermeer’s own brushstrokes. Hunched, looking through a microscope, he begins to flake off the top layer with a scalpel. This really is brain surgery, in terms of the delicacy required.
The canvas remains on display so visitors can watch Cupid emerge.
“It makes it a different painting,” exults senior conservator Uta Neidhardt, calling the transformation “the most sensational experience of my career.”
By May of 2019, you can make out the plump nakedness of little Amor, son of Venus, god of love. He stares straight at you, in fact, looking ever so slightly amused. Now, museum director Stephan Koja says, “the Delft painter’s actual intention becomes recognizable. Beyond the ostensibly amorous context, it is a fundamental statement about the nature of true love.” The restoration continues. By 2020, you can see the two masks lying on the floor—deception? The false selves we often use to disguise our flaws until someone decides to love us anyway? Cupid has trampled one of them; he favors candor and fidelity.
In late August 2021, Schölzel puts down his scalpel, and the Dresden gallery announces that the restoration is complete.
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was painted around 1659. Vermeer died sixteen years later, and his work was scattered. In 1724, the painting was bought by Augustus III of Poland, who believed it a Rembrandt. That was later corrected to Pieter de Hooch; Vermeer was not properly credited until 1880. More Vermeers could still be out there, mislabeled, maybe even overpainted. Did someone deem the Cupid too saccharine? Uncharacteristic of Rembrandt? Did it feel out of date, off trend? Maybe a prospective collector had a phobic horror of putti. People mess with each other’s legacy all the time.
Vermeer’s legacy, at least in this instance, has been repaired, and a little romance added back to life. Girl Reading a Letter is the glowing centerpiece of a large Vermeer exhibit that will run through January 2, 2022, at the Dresden Gemäldegalerie.
Proof that science can restore art, and love can change the meaning of everything.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.