The use of innovative technology in art conservation and restoration never ceases to amaze me, but a major development in this area has really thrown me for a loop this morning.
You’re probably familiar with this beautiful painting by the Dutch Old Master painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), commonly referred to as “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”, which is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden:
The picture was painted in about 1657-59, and shows a well-dressed young woman reading a letter, with her face partially reflected in the glass panes of an open window. Rich fabrics make up her dress and the room’s draperies, while an expensive Turkish prayer rug covers the table in the foreground. A large blue-and-white Delftware salver is tipped over on top of the table, with its fruits spilling out onto the carpet, and we can see the upper part of a tooled leather side chair with gilt brass fittings in the corner. It’s a very quiet, thoughtful piece, which simply appears to show a scene from everyday life.
This work, which is one of the greatest masterpieces of the 17th century “Golden Age” of Dutch art, has been undergoing careful cleaning and study since 2017. For many years, it was known that the blank area of wall behind the figure at one point displayed a painting of the Roman god of erotic love, Cupid, but experts believed that Vermeer himself had painted over it before completing the picture. In the image above, you can just make out the ghost of the frame containing the “Cupid” picture. Starting at the top of the picture, you can see a vertical shift in color tone that runs down the wall to where it intersects with the shadow cast by the open window panel; then, if you start from just underneath the girl’s hair bun, you’ll see a similar tonal shift going in a straight line from the back of her head to the edge of the green drapery at the right.
Now, to everyone’s surprise, it turns out that it was not Vermeer who painted over the “Cupid”, but rather someone else at a much later date. Because of this, and the fact that overall the painting is in excellent condition, the museum made the decision to order the removal of this overpaint. What is emerging will permanently change the way that we see and think of this picture. In fact, the change is so startling that, as the museum’s senior conservator rightly notes, it’s now a completely different painting, even though it is currently only halfway through the cleaning process:
I have to confess, from an aesthetic point of view I rather liked the painting the way it was. I appreciated the juxtaposition of the stark plaster wall against all of the finery of the woman’s costume and the luxury objects in the room. However, that was never what Vermeer wanted me to see when he created this piece. Instead, he was trying to put across a message that is much, much deeper than the simple glorification of beautiful objects – including the objectification of a beautiful woman. As a result, when restoration is complete, this will be a more profound image than simply that of a lady reading a letter.
Sometimes Dutch Golden Age artists could be, if not quite as explicit as, say, later French Rococo painters, still fairly obvious in depictions of adult themes, such as in the many images of interactions between courtesans, clients, and madams that date from this era. In more discreet paintings like “Open Window” however, the connoisseur was invited to “read” the image for clues as to its theme. What may at first seem to be an entirely innocuous image, can take on a different level of meaning when we take a closer look at the combination of individuals, actions, and objects in a scene. In these pictures, the background is not simply scenery, but integral to the plot of the story. Thus, removing a detail such as the “Cupid” would not only have obliterated the artist’s intent, it would also have rendered it impossible for viewers to read the picture properly.
What adds to the likelihood that Vermeer deliberately intended to have the “Cupid” in the picture as a clue to its overall meaning is the fact that he included the same painting in another of his works. “A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal” (1670-72), now in the National Gallery in London, shows the exact same picture hanging on the wall behind the young woman playing the virginal, a musical instrument similar to a harpsichord. She looks out at the viewer with a smile which, when combined with the “Cupid”, should give us a clue as to what is going on in the scene. Like “Open Window”, there is something more than meets the eye in this image, and the painting of the god of love tells us exactly what that is.
If this seems a bit too complicated to comprehend, it may be helpful to consider the location of the critical object within the pictures. In both images, Vermeer places the “Cupid” above the heads of the figures, as indicative of what is on their minds. Isn’t this exactly what we’re accustomed to seeing in cartoons and comic books? If Wile E. Coyote suddenly has the image of a light bulb appear in a thought bubble over his head, then we immediately know, even before anything actually happens, that he’s come up with an idea which he intends to execute.
With “Cupid” back in the picture, as it were, what could Vermeer be trying to tell us here? Now bear with me for a moment, because for those of my readers who are secular, or who have always just thought that this was a pretty painting and nothing more, this is going to be something of a headscratcher. Yet I think that the theme of this picture is, quite simply, sin. More precisely, Vermeer is showing us how when we indulge ourselves in one type of sin, it becomes far more easy to indulge ourselves in another.
Certainly we can see the sins of pride and vanity, not only in the woman’s appearance, with her elaborate hairstyle and costly gown, but also in the decoration of what is presumably one of many rooms in her expensively decorated home. We can also tie in gluttony, in terms of food that is literally overflowing in the picture, as well as in a greed for collecting fine and expensive things. Whoever she is, Mrs. Thing here has married well, and is living a life filled with luxuries and pleasures.
Now, Vermeer throws a mysterious letter into the mix, along with an open window and a painting of a love god. He’s even showing an upset apple cart, albeit in the form of a fruit bowl. Given these elements, there ought to be a light bulb going off in the little thought clouds above our heads right about now.
What we have here, I’d suggest, is a woman who is the 17th century Dutch version of Madame Bovary or Mrs. Robinson. She’s reached a point in life where she can have everything she wants, thanks to a husband who provides her with wealth, respectability, and position in society, and she’s become dissatisfied with all of it. So now, since pride, vanity, gluttony, and greed are not thrilling her anymore in the way that they used to, she’s considering whether she ought not to give lust, and specifically adultery, a try.
Although Vermeer doesn’t tell us directly what her choice is going to be, I’d argue that, alongside the now-restored “Cupid”, the open window speaks for itself, as indeed does the upended bowl of (forbidden) fruit. The woman literally opened the window in the picture, in order to read her letter, but she also figuratively opened the window for the receipt of this letter in the first place, perhaps by flirting with someone at a party or concert. Bored as she is with her present life, she’s about to, if you will, throw her marriage vows right out the window.
Greater minds than mine can and should disagree, of course, but that’s my read here. In any case, the painting in its semi-restored state will be on display in Dresden beginning tomorrow and running through June 16th, before it goes back under the microscope and scalpel for the cleaning to resume. It’s estimated that it will take an additional year to complete the project.