Johannes Vermeer, the remarkable 17th century painter from the city of Delft in the Netherlands, is revered for his transcendent portrayals of the effects of light and atmosphere in domestic scenes.
He is best known for his series of compositions in which people, predominantly young women, are seen engaged in simple activities in front of a window — always to the viewer’s left. These make up the majority of Vermeer’s oeuvre, and consist of many variations on the theme.
The painting known as Girl Reading a Letter at a Window, which has been a centerpiece of the collection of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden for over 250 years, is recognized as the first of these.
It has been known since 1979, when an X-ray analysis was made of the painting, that Vermeer had placed a painting within a painting of a large portrayal of Cupid on the wall behind the figure. It was assumed that Vermeer had thought better of his compositional choice and painted over the image of the painting.
However, a restoration was undertaken in May of 2017, in which it was determined by materials analysis that the overpainting of the blank wall had, in fact, been added by another hand after the time of Vermeer’s death.
Given that knowledge, the conservators began to remove the third-hand paint-over, including painted over extensions of the composition at the edges of the canvas, which Vermeer had left blank, perhaps in anticipation of mounting the work in a particular frame.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister has now unveiled the restoration, which will be the center of a new exhibition, Johannes Vermeer. On Reflection, that will be on display from 10/9/2021 to 2/1/2022.
The restoration reveals the detailed, large scale painting of Cupid, similar to the painting within a painting of Vermeer’s later work, Lady Standing at a Virginal.
This page on the website of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister goes into the restoration of the painting at a time when the process was about half way completed.
The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister has not yet released a high resolution image of the restored painting, so I’m including images of the pre-restoration version — that are available in high resolution on the Google Art Project and Wikipedia — in which you can see a shadowy pentimento of the covered painting.
You can see the pre-restoration version in context, both by date and in size comparison to Vermeer’s other works in this fascinating comparison on the fantastic Essential Vermeer website. (See my post on Essential Vermeer.)