We have only thirty four, perhaps thirty five, acknowledged paintings by the remarkable 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, so when one of his works is restored, revealing subtlties of color and detail not seen in centuries, it’s an occasion.
It’s particularly noteworthy when the painting is one of Vermeer’s most beautiful and subtle works. “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” is one of four Vermeer paintings in the Rijksmuseum, all of which are among Vermeer’s most acclaimed works.
The painting shows what appears to be a pregnant woman (which is a matter of argument among scholars, given fashions of the day) bathed in the soft light of an unseen window, intently reading a letter — in Dutch painting of the day meant to suggest a narrative element of romance or intrigue.
The model for the young woman has been identified by some as possibly Vermeer’s wife, though this is not well established. The composition contains many elements in common with other Vermeer paintings of solo figures bathed in light from a window, but is unique in that neither the window or a corner of the room or portion of the ceiling is visible.
The painting was recently on loan (in itself a rare occasion) for a touring exhibition in Japan, the revenue from which paid for its restoration. The painting had suffered a bit from previous well meaning but all advised attempts at retouching. The new restoration, which was done in 2010 prior to the tour, has brought it as much as possible in line with what can be established as Vermeer’s original intentions.
The painting is now back at Rijksmuseum and on highlighted display. The the museum has posted a new high-resolution image of the painting here, accessed from this page. There is also a brief description of the restoration.
Rijksmuseum restorer Ige Verslype said of the restoration: “The greatest surprise was when we discovered how Vermeer produced such an intense blue color. We now know that he used a copper-green undercoat to give the color extra depth. Once the yellowed glaze had been removed, this magnificent blue came back into view in all of its glorious nuances.”