The internationally well-known and venerated painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Johannes Vermeer can now, more than two and a half centuries on, be enjoyed looking just as it did when it left the artists studio. Previous x-ray examinations indicated that a picture of a naked Cupid in the painting had been overpainted. Today, new laboratory tests have conclusively determined that the overpainting was not by Vermeers hand. On this basis, the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
decided in the course of the current restoration of the work to remove the overpaint. To allow the public to participate in the process of restoration, the Girl Reading a Letter will be presented in its current intermediate state at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Semperbau from 8 May to 16 June 2019.
Johannes Vermeers (16321675) Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (ca. 1657/59) has long counted among the principal works of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. It was acquired in Paris in 1742 for the collection of the Saxon Elector Frederick August II. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Girl Reading a Letter was restored several times in Dresden. In 2017, when the current comprehensive restoration of the painting got underway, the results of numerous previous analyses could be drawn upon. In 1979, an x-ray image of the work revealed a completely overpainted picture in the picture showing a naked Cupid on the wall of the room in the background. Annaliese Mayer-Meintschel published this finding in 1982 and it found mention in numerous publications. From then on scientists assumed that Vermeer had rejected the Cupid image and painted over the back wall of the room himself.
After Vermeers The Procuress was successfully restored at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden between 2002 and 2004, the focus increasingly shifted to Girl Reading a Letter. In the spring of 2017, the comprehensive restoration of the artwork began, carried out by painting conservator Christoph Schölzel. The research and restoration project is led by Stephan Koja, Director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister and the Skulpturensammlung (classical antiquity to 1800); Uta Neidhardt, Chief Conservator at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister; and Marlies Giebe, Head of Painting Restoration. Further, it is the role of Michael Mäder, physicist at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresdens department of research and scientific cooperation to promote interdisciplinary involvement in the project. A partner to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, the archaeometry laboratory at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden, directed by Christoph Herm, is a further contributor.
The project enjoys the support of an international expert commission, including colleagues from Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Washington and Vienna, who lend their advice during regular meetings. The ongoing restoration is also informed by the findings of extensive research on the work of Johannes Vermeer carried out in the process of restoring paintings of his at other major institutions over the past two decades.
While the painting, considering its age, is in good condition and remains stable in terms of its conservation condition, its surface was marked by very darkened layers of varnish and old retouching one of the main reasons to restore the painting. The layers of varnish severely compromised the effect of the paintings colours and were removed in the first phase of the restoration. Now the appearance of the work once again follows the intention of the painter, with subtle, cool colouration.
In the past years, x-ray and infrared reflectography imaging as well as microscopic analyses have been re-evaluated in Dresden. A detailed analysis of the canvas substrate as well as research on the restoration history have also been carried out. Several colour samples were taken from the Vermeer painting and analysed for layering and consistency in the archaeometry laboratory at the Hochschule für Bildenden Künste Dresden. These up-to-date examinations were decisive in the re-evaluation of the large overpainted area covering the Cupid in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. It was concluded that the overpainting is not by Vermeer but was done at least several decades after the master had completed the painting and most certainly after his death. An x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy of the paintings entire surface, carried out in 2017 with the support of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, confirmed this new insight.
In light of the many indications that supported the idea that the overpainting had been carried out by a hand other than Vermeers, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, supported by the expert commission, decided early in 2018 to remove the layer of overpaint.
The restoration process has proven very demanding, complex and extremely time-intensive. Using high magnification, Christoph Schölzel has been carrying out the removal of the layer of overpaint with a scalpel. This is the only method that will allow for the preservation of extant residues of the varnish covering Vermeers original paint. Presumably, this constitutes the last surviving layer of varnish originally applied by Vermeer.
Considering the degree of precision required here, we may assume that work on the painting will continue for at least another year before it will be fully restored. The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden will therefore present Vermeers Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window to the public in its current intermediate state at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Semperbau from 8 May to 16 June 2019.
A documentary film informs visitors about the process of restoration so far.