Since 1979, artwork historians have recognized that Johannes Vermeer’s Lady Studying a Letter at an Open Window (circa 1657-1659) featured an overpainted determine of a Cupid within the background. Most assumed Vermeer himself had painted over the determine. Now, due to a serious restoration by the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Germany, the overpainting has a been eliminated to disclose the Cupid. That course of additionally revealed that another person painted over the Cupid within the 18th century, after the artist’s dying, inflicting a rethinking of how the portray ought to be interpreted. The totally restored canvas is now on view to the general public for the primary time on the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, considered one of many galleries that kind the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.
The usage of numerous X-ray imaging strategies—particularly synchrotron radiation—has turn out to be a strong software for the nondestructive evaluation of nice artistic endeavors. For example, European scientists in 2008 used synchrotron radiation to reconstruct the hidden portrait of a peasant lady painted by Vincent van Gogh. The artist (recognized for reusing his canvases) had painted over it when he created 1887’s Patch of Grass. The synchrotron radiation excites the atoms on the canvas, which then emit X-rays of their very own that may be picked up by a fluorescence detector. Every aspect within the portray has its personal X-ray signature, so scientists can determine the distribution of every within the many layers of paint.
In 2019, we reported on the work of a group of Dutch and French scientists who used high-energy X-rays to unlock Rembrandt’s secret recipe for his well-known impasto method, believed to be misplaced to historical past. And in 2020, a global group of scientists used synchrotron radiation to find out the reason for alarming indicators of degradation to Edvard Munch’s well-known portray The Scream. The team’s analysis revealed that the harm isn’t the results of publicity to gentle, however humidity—particularly, from the breath of museum guests, maybe as they lean in to take a better have a look at the grasp’s brushstrokes.
As soon as mistakenly attributed to Rembrandt, Vermeer’s Lady Studying a Letter at an Open Window is without doubt one of the earliest-known examples of the Dutch grasp’s use of pointillé, a way just like embossing or engraving that includes punching dots. It was common within the fifteenth century for adorning armor and firearms and was used on handmade e-book bindings within the seventeenth century. Vermeer’s model integrated tiny white globules of paint to seize results of the sunshine. It is generally cited as proof that Vermeer used optical aids, most certainly a camera obscura or a double-concave lens, though this stays a controversial speculation.
Paint samples have been analyzed within the Sixties, revealing nothing uncommon in regards to the artist’s selection of supplies. He used pigments frequent to the Baroque period, together with blue azurite, lead-tin yellow, vermillion, madder lake, and lead white. The portray was first subjected to X-ray evaluation in 1979, revealing the Cupid lurking underneath the overpainting and making this one other instance of Vermeer’s “portray inside a portray” canvases. Scientists subjected Lady Studying a Letter to infrared reflectography in 2009, and in preparation for this newest restoration, the portray was examined through macro X-ray fluorescent scanning—to map the distribution of components—and stereomicroscopy as effectively.
Conservationist Christoph Scholzel initially eliminated a number of layers of varnish, first utilized within the nineteenth century and renewed repeatedly, which had steadily turned yellowish brown with age. That is when he observed the paints used within the central background the place the Cupid was hidden had completely different solubility properties than these used elsewhere. Subsequent evaluation confirmed that there have been outdated layers of a binding agent, in addition to a layer of filth, between the paints in that space and the paints utilized by the Dutch grasp. This means that a number of many years will need to have elapsed between Vermeer finishing Lady Studying a Letter and the overpainting of the Cupid. The latter couldn’t have been achieved by Vermeer.
Based mostly on that discovering, the choice was made to take away the overpainting to revive Lady Studying a Letter as Vermeer had meant. For this, Scholzel used a advantageous scalpel, monitoring the method underneath a microscope to be able to retain what is probably going the final authentic varnish layer utilized by the artist himself. This is what the portray’s once-blank background now depicts, per Hyperallergic:
The blond-haired god of affection and need holds a bow in his proper hand and gazes out on the viewer from the image on the wall, enclosed by a thick black body. On the ground behind him are two masks, attainable symbols of deception; Cupid tramples over considered one of them together with his proper foot in an allegory of faithfulness and real love. Vermeer’s well-known ethereal gentle streams via the open window, lending the scene a transcendent, non secular glow.
“It’s in Lady Studying a Letter that Vermeer discovers his personal, distinct fashion. It marks the start of a sequence of work wherein people, typically girls, pause throughout an exercise to discover a second of calm, and to mirror,” said museum director Stephan Koja. “Restoring the Cupid within the background exhibits us the grasp from Delft’s true intention. Past the superficial romantic context, it makes a basic assertion on the character of real love. Till now, we may solely see this as a fraction. Now we all know what a key position it performs in his oeuvre.”
From a technical standpoint, “The modified look of the Lady Studying a Letter at an Open Window, together with the overpainting eliminated on the borders of the canvas, offers us a possibility to rethink the portray’s composition and the way it works visually,” said Uta Neidhardt, the museum’s head conservator and exhibition curator. “The borders seem curiously unfinished—maybe Vermeer lined it with an precise wood body, which is why he left them in such an ‘open’ situation. If we assume that he had deliberate to make use of such a development, we instantly recall the experimental works by church inside painters from Delft, with their trompe-l’oeil curtains, or Pieter de Hooch’s intricate interiors.