Found: a controversial painting hidden inside a painting by Vermeer

This freshly unearthed image drastically alters the meaning of one of the artist’s most celebrated works.

“There is far more than a picture of Cupid above her to the right! Do you see the weird mask laying on the bed and the two creepy E.T. looking entities in the reflection of the window? Wow. None of this is even mentioned in the article!!” _Lisa T.

TIM BRINKHOF30 August, 2021

Found: a controversial painting hidden inside a painting by Vermeer

Girl Reading a Letter in an Open Window

Credit: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

  • When restoring a painting by Vermeer, conservators discovered an image of Cupid covered up by an additional layer of paint.
  • The paint was removed, revealing the painting as the Dutch master had originally intended it.
  • While this discovery settles old debates about the work, it also raises some new questions — like: who covered it up?

Every now and then, conservators stumble upon an unseen detail that completely alters the meaning of a centuries-old image. Earlier this week, the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany unveiled their most recent attempt to restore Girl Reading a Letter in an Open Window, a genre painting created by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer in 1657.

Although the painting was once attributed to Rembrandt, it contains numerous elements that are considered characteristic of Vermeer. A drapery is pulled to the side, allowing viewers to glimpse into the private life of a female figure who, depicted in profile, engages in some kind of soft, quiet, and altogether unremarkable everyday activity, in this case, reading a letter.

Yet this seemingly mundane image had a big surprise in store. For a very long time, it was believed that the girl depicted in Vermeer’s painting was standing in front of a plain, old, undecorated wall. However, X-rays revealed that this wall was actually a secondary coat of paint applied to obscure a picture of Cupid, the god of erotic love and desire in classical mythology. (I didn’t even see the painting of Cupid when I first looked at it. I immediately saw the mask on the bed and the entities. Lisa T.)

An imbalanced composition

Even before modern technology allowed conservators to peek underneath layers of paint without damaging them, critics suspected that Girl Reading a Letter was hiding something. Photos taken before the restoration clearly show the darkened outlines of what used to be the shadow cast by a canvas hanging on the wall.

In early 2018, the Gemäldegalerie made the decision to remove this secondary coat and reveal the painting-within-a-painting hidden underneath. The result of this risky and slightly controversial endeavor — which the gallery now advertises as an entirely “new” Vermeer — shed some light on the many mysteries surrounding this famous artwork.

Why was Cupid’s presence in the painting not discovered sooner? One explanation is that Vermeer often incorporated empty backgrounds in his genre paintings. The wall behind The Milkmaid, for example, was left completely naked. Presumably, this was because the negative space helped bring Vermeer’s unsung heroine, the maid, into focus.

In Girl Reading a Letter, this negative space has been removed and the image of Cupid, almost as large as the girl herself, now fills up a large portion of the background. Rather than stealing the spotlight from Vermeer’s main subject, the painting-within-a-painting adds a welcome sense of harmony to what could have previously been considered an imbalanced composition.

Forbidden love

But the presence of the love god does more than change the painting’s look and feel; it also alters its meaning. For decades, historians debated what the contents of the letter might be. In his biography of Vermeer, Norbert Schneider interpreted the wide-open window as symbolic for the outside world, arguing the painting depicted the girl’s “longing to extend her domestic sphere.”

Schneider studied the objects Vermeer scattered throughout the painting to test his argument and quickly noticed the bowl of fruit in the foreground. According to Dutch Golden Age iconography, fruit and vegetables represented love, sin, and according to Schneider, even something as specific as “extramarital relations.”

Schneider made this deduction before the painting-within-a-painting was unearthed. Once the X-rays confirmed Vermeer had originally intended to ordain the background with an image of Cupid, the historian concluded the letter was a love letter. And not just any love, but forbidden love: the bittersweet fruits of a 17th century affair.

Though a handful of Vermeer’s most striking portraits from the aforementioned Milkmaid to The Girl with the Pearl Earring were painted against an empty backdrop, the Dutch master frequently incorporated artwork from other painters in his own creations in such a way that the relationships between different images produced subtle statements like the one outlined above.

Who covered up the painting-within-a-painting?

While the Gemäldegalerie’s restoration attempt answers many questions about Girl Reading a Letter, it has also raised new ones: When was the painting-within-a-painting covered up? Who is responsible? And most importantly, why did they do it? Unfortunately, these questions cannot be answered by X-rays and lab tests alone.

Initially, critics simply assumed that Vermeer covered up the painting-within-a-painting himself, perhaps because he wanted its symbolism to be a little less obvious. However, this hypothesis was quickly rejected for a number of reasons, including the fact that the secondary coat of paint had been applied decades after the first one.

While it is possible that Vermeer revisited the painting later in life, it is unlikely he would have made any significant changes. Those familiar with his work know that similar paintings of Cupid can be found in the background of other genre paintings, including Lady Standing at a Virginal, which he completed three years before his death in 1675.

In hindsight, conservators were not all that surprised by their discovery of the painting-within-a-painting as images of Cupid decorate the backgrounds of many original Vermeers, so much so that critics speculate each individual iteration must have been based on a painting by a contemporary artist that Vermeer had in his possession.

Old art, new findings

With their discovery of a “new” Vermeer, the Gemäldegalerie offers yet another example of how modern technology can enhance our understanding of age-old artwork. A few years ago, Harvard Art Museums used specialized light installations to cover up the wear and tear on a series of murals Mark Rothko had completed in the 1960s.

More recently, the Rijksmuseum made similar strides when it used artificial intelligence software to reconstruct sections of The Night Watch that went missing more than three centuries ago. With the help of neural networks, researchers were able to translate a copy from the style of a contemporary artist into Rembrandt’s own.

Now, it is finally Vermeer’s turn. “The Delft painter’s actual intention becomes recognizable,” museum director Stephan Koja announced in a statement. “Before, we only looked at a vestige. Now, we understand it as a key image in his oeuvre. [Girl Reading a Letter] is a fundamental statement about the nature of love.”

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Camille-Paglia

Click here for the full interview for your reading pleasure this weekend.

Camille Paglia-EXCELLENT!

Paglia is an essayist, author, and professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since 1984. She completed her Ph.D. at Yale under the supervision of Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon. Her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence, from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinsonwas listed by David Bowie as one of “100 books we should all read.” 

Her other books include Break, Blow, Burn, a close-reading of 43 classic poems, and Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. In recent years, her essays have been collected and published in new editions, including Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, and Feminism (February 2018) and Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education, which was released by Pantheon in October 2018.

“I thought Derrida and DeMan and the rest of that crew were arrant nonsense from the start, a pedantic diversion from direct engagement with art. About the obsequious Yale welcome given to the prattlings of one continental “star” visitor, I acidly remarked to a fellow grad student sitting next to me, “They’re like high priests murmuring to each other.”

Love it.

Nevertheless, the poisons of post-structuralism have now spread throughout academe and have done enormous damage to basic scholarly standards and disastrously undermined belief even in the possibility of knowledge. I suspect history will not be kind to the leading professors who appear to have put loyalty to friends and colleagues above defending scholarly values during a chaotic era of overt vandalism that has deprived several generations of students of a profound education in the humanities. The steady decline in humanities majors is an unmistakable signal that this once noble field has become a wasteland.”

Anything focused on real intelligence, literacy, and human beings have been thrown to the wayside.  Mediocrity or below rules the day.

The headlong rush to judgment by so many well-educated, middle-class women in the #MeToo movement has been startling and dismaying. Their elevation of emotion and group solidarity over fact and logic has resurrected damaging stereotypes of women’s irrationality that were once used to deny us the vote. I found the blanket credulity given to women accusers during the recent U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh positively unnerving: it was the first time since college that I truly understood the sexist design of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, whose mob of vengeful Furies is superseded by formal courts of law, where evidence is weighed.”

WOW!!

What I see spreading among professional middle-class women is a bitter resentment toward men that is in many cases unjust and misplaced. With divorce so easy since the sexual revolution, women find themselves competing with younger women in new and cruel ways. Agrarian women gained power as they aged: young women were brainless pawns whose marriages, pregnancies, childcare, cooking, and other chores were acerbically supervised and controlled by the dictatorial crones (forces of nature whom I fondly remember from childhood).

In short, #MeToo from a historical perspective is a cri de coeur from women who are realizing that the sexual revolution that many of us had once ecstatically embraced has in key ways devalued women, confused their private relationships, and complicated their smooth functioning in the workplace. It’s time for a new map of the gender world.”

She’s speakin’ it. On many points, I agree with her. Crack a book, folks; female and male.

 

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