I am well aware that recently I have not been posting often enough – I won’t lie to you, it is because I have been very busy lately. In August I had to prepare all the materials for the online lectures in English that I am about to have next year in a EU project. I must say that the requirement of preparing all the presentations so much earlier is rather an inconvenience, as I cannot guarantee that the presentations will still be up to date in a year. That is because sometimes one restoration may change everything we ever claimed about a work of art.
A very good example of such a case is a recent renovation of one of the most famous paintings by Johannes Vermeer van Delft, that is “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” (1657-59, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden). It will be exhibited soon, from September 10th, 2021, to January 2nd, 2022.
Today Vermeer is regarded as one of the most important Dutch artists of the 17th century, but until the 19th century he was rather forgotten. His paintings used to be attributed to other painters; the “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” was in fact briefly considered to have been the work of Rembrandt. That is how it was attributed when it came into the collection of the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, August III. In 1742 Samuel de Brais bought for him in Paris 30 paintings of the collection of Prince Carignan – this painting was added to the purchase as an extra gift. Probably the Rembrandt attribution was questioned already – in Dresden in the 18th c. the painting was reattributed to the pupils of Rembrandt.
In the 19th century Vermeer was rediscovered, and that, by the way, led to the most famous forgery scandal in the first half of the 20th century (I wrote about it earlier, the post is available HERE). “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” actually turned out to be a signed work (barely visible JMeer is on the wall right to the girl’s skirt). Since the 1860s this painting is correctly described as a work by Johannes Vermeer.
I always liked Vermeer’s works, and I appreciate calling him “a painter of the silence”. Back when I had university lectures on art history, I told my students about how remarkably Vermeer portrayed women in everyday situations: pouring milk, or reading letters. There is a special mystical vibe in his paintings, some kind of sacred focus, tranquilness and silence. I remember talking quite a lot about uniqueness of his compositions, because – as I used to say – he depicted women in strange space. In our contemporary minimalist designs we may consider empty walls of rooms normal, but in the seventeenth century Dutch houses there were paintings all over the walls. But Vermeer – I used to argue – wanted to focus our attention on depicted women, and that is why he placed them against the empty background. And then look how ambiguous this painting is: we have no idea what kind of letter she reads. Is it from her husband, or lover? Is it from her mother or brother? The artist gave us no clues and let us ponder.
And now the joke is on me. Because, as recent conservation proved, originally “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” was not placed against an empty wall. There was a picture depicting Cupid! So no room for pondering, in fact; the letter she reads must be a love letter. Additionally, due to his proportions the Cupid now completely overshadows the girl in this composition.
This same Cupid picture may be found in other paintings by Vermeer, such as “Lady Standing at a Virginal” (1670, National Gallery in London), or “Interrupted Music Lesson” (ca. 1658-59, Frick Collection in New York). Perhaps Vermeer simply had that Cupid picture at his home.
We don’t know when the Cupid in Dresden painting was overpainted, but it was not done by Vermeer himself; most likely it occurred in the 18th century.
I am a little ashamed to admit that I actually liked this painting better when there was no Cupid, but an empty wall…
Anyway, that is why whenever someone expects me to quickly run a lecture I had before in the past, I always reply that even though it has been prepared earlier, I need some time to update it. Because who knows – perhaps some recent restoration of the work of art I am supposed to talk about made all the earlier conclusions pointless?
There is another example of such a case: a tomb of Polish king Ladislaus I the Short at Cracow Cathedral.
For a few years I have been running lectures for future guides in Cracow Cathedral. I do my best to give them up-to-date knowledge… In Autumn 2019, during last courses before pandemics, I told them how this tomb was never polychromed, which is an influence of a very specific trend in Lower Rhine sculpture ca. 1300. And guess what happened in the Autumn 2020? Stołeczny Komitet Odnowy Zabytków Krakowa (City Comitee for the Restoration of Cracow Monuments) published information that recent renovation of the tomb brought up traces of malachite and ochre paints on the statue of the king and on sculptures decorating tom’s sides. So, it was polychromed, after all.
That is what science is about: state of knowledge constantly changes. There are no final conclusions, there is no one good interpretation. We build our hypothesis on assumptions that may prove wrong any time. And then we just have to re-write history of our piece of art all over again.
I wonder how many hidden Cupids still await to be discovered.
Love, as they say, may often strike you out of nowhere.