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'New' Vermeer: Restoration or Erasing the Past?

Ginevra Tortora

Dresden, Germany: the painting, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, attributed to Johannes Vermeer, will be visible again at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden (where it was kept since 1955) after restoration, revealing to the public a marvellous discovery.

Painted by Vermeer around 1655, the portrait showing a woman intimately focused on reading a letter, is one of the 35 canvases left by the Dutch painter. The masterpiece was recently restored to expose a concealed Cupid that changed its appearance and meaning entirely. While it was always defined by a mysterious tone, now the fundamental truth of the piece is disclosed.

An X-Ray analysis already detected a painted-over figure in 1979 but, as it was believed that Vermeer himself decided to cover it, the Cupid was left hidden from the public eye behind a smooth, perfectly painted wall, adding to the silent emotional tension of the woman. However, recent investigations conducted by the restorer Christoph Shoezel in 2017, revealed that the added layer was a posthumous work to please a changed aesthetic taste.

‘It was the most sensational experience of my career’ – Says Uta Neidthardt, senior restorer at Gemäldegalerie Alte.

The fact that the same Cupid can be observed in Vermeer’s Lady Standing at a Virginal, conserved at the National Gallery in London, had scholars speculating that a real-life portrait of the God of Love could have belonged to the painter’s house in Delft. But the image doesn’t merely represent a brainy artistic device. On the contrary, by making the elements of love and lust evident, the enigmatic nature of the woman’s correspondence becomes apparent. She is reading a love letter, the reflex of her face on the window (typical device of the Flemish mastery) tells a story of longing and trepidation caused by the words of her beloved. The Cupid is a clear symbolism of such passion. In addition to that, the God stepping on theatrical masks represents the victory of real love over deception and hypocrisy. Following restoration, the portrait appears less cryptic and describes a reality more in accordance with the taste, iconography and symbolism of the Renaissance.

While we can’t be certain of the motives behind disguising the image in Vermeer’s painting, covering layers of all kinds are not unusual in art history. After the end of the Council of Trent in 1564 (held in the attempt to revitalise the Catholic Church’s values, challenged by the Protestant doctrine), Daniele da Volterra (nicknamed ‘The Braghettone’ – ‘The Breeches Maker’) was chosen to cover the ‘scandalous’ nudes of the Sistine Chapel’s Giudizio Universale after Michelangelo’s death. In some cases, censures made by other painters in the following years went as far as destroying parts of the frescos to preserve the decency of the sacred images. The ‘underpants’ issue was subject of a heated controversy several years ago, until it was decided that only The Braghettone’s edits would remain in place as testimonies of an era and aesthetic idea, although questionable, performed with skill by one of the masters of the Renaissance.

After all, the debate around the conservation of artworks and architectural masterpieces is also no novelty. But an essential difference must be drawn between ‘conservation’, aimed solely at keeping and stabilising artworks to maintain them against the elements of time, and ‘restoration’, performed to bring back the object as closely as the original as possible by making alterations for the purpose if necessary. While the former responds to a primary need to protect art from decay, restoration admits to erase pages of history in a bid to unveil the real intentions of the artists.

And yet, whether that may be justified or desirable is not easy to say. As quintessential imitation of life, art is open to interpretations, events are subjective and influenced by historical tendencies and facts. While some scholars believe that the truth can only be revealed by pursuing the original condition of a piece, others claim that signs of the passing of time, the ruins of the object, contribute to its overall aura and aesthetics, and therefore, must not be altered.

‘It is similar to the way in which we love a person – wrote Mark Sagoff in his article On Restoring and Reproducing Art – what we love is not a bundle of characteristics, but rather the whole integrated person’.

Considering that restoration projects were moved by social and political transformations in the past (e.g., the fall of Napoleon between 1812-15 reshaped artists’ lives and beliefs) and that human artistic taste is ever-changing, the course of time may be a more truthful measure of an object’s history rather than an ideal of integrity that perhaps never existed.

On the other hand, restoration was necessary as a result of catastrophic events such as the vandalization of Michelangelo’s La Pietà or the fire of Notre Dame in 2019. Among long discussions on whether it would be appropriate to rebuild the disfigured cathedral according to contemporary taste, it was concluded that valuing the history of the present was more important than denying that the fire took place by crystallising the past.

Realistically, we can often only assume what artworks and architectural masterpieces looked like when they first were created, but without any doubt, dust and other elements of time contribute to their decay, making intervention very desirable if not necessary.

For what concerns preserving the ‘truth’ of a piece of art, one could indulge in endless speculations on what is defined as the ‘truth’. There will always be another layer. In art history as well as in life and human psyche, sometimes it is desirable to investigate and uncover what is behind the surface, other times that is not the case. Consequently, art historians and other experts should proceed on a case-by-case evaluation. Regardless of where these pieces of art are located, they belong to the heritage of all humanity. Which is why efforts should be made to assure the highest quality of professionalisms and possibly the creation of international commissions of academics to deliberate on the destiny of inestimable objects.

The sensational discovery of Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window changed the painting as we had known it for centuries as much as the Law of Universal Gravitation changed physics. Human ignorance of gravity does not deny its power. Thus, uncovering the concealed Cupid changed the course of history, answered questions and perhaps reflected a modern human desire for plain images rather than enigmatic realities. In Stephan Koja’s (director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister) words, - ‘with the recovery of the Cupid in the background, only the actual intention of the Delft painter becomes apparent […] Beyond the superficially amorous context, it is a fundamental statement on loyalty and sincerity, the essence of true love’.

Another piece is added to the complex real-life puzzle which is Johannes Vermeer’s life. As such, the restoration of his Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is a wonderful opportunity to provide insights into the artist’s intentions and ambiguous character.

It is an historical document and a gift to all humanity.

Images (in order):

1. The newly restored Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (around 1657-59) by Johannes Vermeer © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, SKD, Photo: Wolfgang Kreische

2. Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (around 1657-59) before its most recent restoration© Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, SKD, Photo: Wolfgang Kreische

3. Michelangelo Buonarroti | Last Judgment | 1534-41 | Sistine Chapel, Vatican | photographed before the 1990-1994 restoration | Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; | (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

4. Marcello Venusti | Last Judgment | Museo e gallerie nazionali di Capodimonte | Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; | (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

5. Photograph of the Notre Dame Cathedral after the fire.

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