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Vermeer’s "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window" is getting restored

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The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden restores the second painting by Johannes Vermeer "Girl Reading a Letter" (1659). The painting is stable in terms of its conservation condition, considering its age. Specialists say that its surface, however, is characterized by severely darkened layers of varnish and old retouching, and this above all gave rise to the decision to restore the painting.
Numerous examinations were performed over the past years to better understand the artistic process behind Girl Reading a Letter and its state of preservation.

The extraordinary conservation project, which got underway in the spring of 2017, is made possible through the generous support of the Hata Foundation in Tokyo and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen’s department for research and scientific cooperation.

Marking the beginning of the project was an international symposium with specialists from Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna and Dresden, who examined and restored works by the artist in the past years.
The painting depicts a young Dutch blonde standing at an open window, in profile, reading a letter. A red drapery hangs over the top of the window opened inward and in its lower right quadrant we can see the reflection of the girl. A tasseled ochre drapery in the foreground right, partially closed, masks a quarter of the room where she stands. The color of the drape reflects the green of the woman’s gown and the shades of the fruit tilted in a bowl on the red-draped table. On the table beside the bowl, a peach is cut in half, revealing its pit.
Norbert Schneider indicates that the open window is on one level intended to represent "the woman’s longing to extend her domestic sphere" beyond the constraints of her home and society, while the fruit "is a symbol of extramarital relations." He concludes that the letter is a love letter either planning or continuing her illicit relationship. This conclusion, he says, is supported by the fact that x-rays of the canvas have shown that at one point Vermeer had featured a Cupid in the painting. This putto once hung in the upper right of the piece before Vermeer drew the draperies over it. The theories have stated that he did it because it would call more the attention of the people Cupid’s painting than the rest of the painting itself.

The idea of including a curtain in the painting has numerous precedents and became very popular in the mid 17th century. The draperies hanging in the right foreground, are not an uncommon element for Vermeer, appearing in seven of his paintings. Even more common, the repoussoir appears in 25 of his works, with Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, one of three which feature a rug-covered table or balustrade between the figure and the viewer. It was the last painting in which Vermeer featured this device.

Photo: SKD / Wolfgang Kreische

In 2002−2004, German experts successfully restored one of Vermeer’s early works, The Procuress (1656), then the idea of restoring Girl Reading a Letter arose as well.
Jan Vermeer. The Procuress
The Procuress
1656, 143×130 cm
Jan Vermeer. Officer and a laughing girl

"Girl Reading a Letter" and "Officer and Laughing Girl" represent the earliest known examples of the pointillé (not to be confused with pointillism), for which Vermeer became known. John Michael Montias in "Vermeer and His Milieu" (1991) points out the "tiny white globules" that can be seen in the brighter parts of both paintings, including the still life elements of both and the blond hair specifically in this work. This use of light may support speculation among art historians that Vermeer used a mechanical optical device, such as a double concave lens mounted in a camera obscura, to help him achieve realistic light patterns in his paintings.

"We hope to win back Vermeer’s well-known vivid colouration in a painting that was created at an important turning point in Vermeer’s work. At the same time, we expect to gain answers in regard to various hypotheses about the pictorial invention in the work and its history. We will be presenting our first results as well as further steps to an interested public in the course of the project," says Prof. Marlies Giebe, Director of Paintings Conservation.

Vermeer completed the painting in approximately 1657−59. In 1742, Augustus III of Poland, Elector of Saxony, purchased the painting under the mistaken belief that it had been painted by Rembrandt. There were great difficulties to establish which paintings were executed by Vermeer himself and which were not, mainly because of the problems with the signature recorded in the paintings.

They really have something very special in common, though having many differences at the same time. Rembrandt is darker, while Vermeer is brighter. But what they have in common is where they focus the light. They set up the light in a specific point in the picture, and not just any point, but the important one. It is were the eyes have to be driven, where we should focus our attention. A very good example is "Girl with a pearl earring". We can consider that there are three main points of light: the face itself, the lower lip and the earring. These important points are reflected with light.

In 1826, it was mis-attributed again, to Pieter de Hooch. However, in 1862 the right identification was made by French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger, thus the painting as one of the artist`s rare works was eventually attributed to Vermeer.

Left: Anton Raphael Mengs. August III the Saxon (c. 1800), pastel on paper. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

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"Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window" was among the paintings rescued from destruction during the bombing of Dresden in World War II. The painting was stored with other works of art in a tunnel in Saxony; when the Red Army encountered them, they took them. The Soviets portrayed this as an act of rescue; some others as an act of plunder. Either way, after the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviets decided in 1955 to return the paintings to Germany, "for the purpose of strengthening and furthering the progress of friendship between the Soviet and German peoples."Aggrieved at the thought of losing hundreds of paintings, art historians and museum curators in the Soviet Union suggested that "in acknowledgment for saving and returning the world-famous treasures of the Dresden Gallery" the Germans should perhaps donate them Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and Sleeping Venus by Giorgione. The Germans did not take to the idea, and the painting was returned. Well-preserved, it is on display at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden.
  • Photo: SKD /Maria Körber
  • Photo: SKD / Wolfgang Kreische
The painting was investigated by Hermann Kühn together with several other works of Vermeer in 1968. The pigment analysis has shown that Vermeer’s choice of painting materials had no peculiarities as he used the usual pigments of the Baroque period. The green drapery in the foreground is painted mainly in a mixture of blue azurite and lead-tin-yellow, while the lower part contains green earth. For the red drapery in the window and the red parts of the table covering Vermeer used a mixture of vermilion, madder lake and lead white.
The restored Vermeer painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window will be presented to visitors to Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie in 2019, on the occasion of the reopening of the Sempergalerie after many years of partial closure due to its reconstruction. It can already be announced as a highlight of the new permanent exhibition.
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Title illustration: Girl Reading a Letter in Workshop. SKD / Jürgen Lange

Based on materials from official site The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
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