Monday, June 4, 2012

Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” restored

Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
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.”

7 thoughts on “Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” restored

  1. joscha

    The Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool published an article on this restoration in which some people also complained about it. They feel the new restored image is too clear and sharp, and feels like a cut-out image pasted on the background. They feel that part of the magic of the painting has been lost. (the article was not written by an art scholar but by a Dutch writer who adores this painting but hates the restoration.)

    I have not seen the new restored version but it is an interesting discussion. The restored version is probably better, and closer to the original image as Vermeer intended it but of course people have grown fond of the paiting as it was all these years before this restoration.

  2. Lorette

    I read that Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, not to confuse with A Girl Reading a Letter, has been framed four times in 170 years. Very funny.
    Can’t wait to visit http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/museumbezoek?lang=en again in Amsterdam.
    (lang=en means language english)

    PLINY, NYC, never got the answers to his questions from the Art Newspaper.
    If “the blue appeared to gradually fade beneath the varnish” how did they restore the blue? New paint or pigments? Is what they did reversible ? Or did they just remove the yellow varnish?

  3. Charley Parker Post author

    It’s not unusual for those intimately familiar with a painting to react with shock to a cleaning and restoration that noticeably changes the appearance of the painting (the Sistine Chapel cleaning comes to mind). Layers of yellowed varnish can give an appearance of unity that is lost when cleaned, and original colors revealed by the removal of the dimming effect of the varnish can seem preternaturally bright.

  4. Mlo

    The painting is ruined,

    I love the talk about removing the yellow glaze.
    They just took off all of Vermeer’s Final transparent layers. Its not all varnish theres subtle color glazes that complete the composition look at how your eyes move around the image before it was cleaned there is a definitive focus on her reading the letter, now its pieces that focus is gone! Take a look at her hair line too they gave her a nice scalping just like the others they have cleaned. It makes me want to vomit how easily they convince people that they are improving or showing a clearer vision of what Vermeer painted. Well they got it down to the underpainting and took off the masterpiece which Vermeer left us, thats not coming back.
    now she looks like a zombie and all the blues are out of place, And they are intense so they radiate up through the glazes he didnt intend it to be smurfville. Painting was a chess game with many layers and moves not a stupid one shot checkergame. which now is the norm Leave them alone and let them rest in there untouched beauty in there homes no reason to take them out and pimp them out.

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