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Critical Assessments: What is the meaning of the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window?

Girl Reading a Letter at
an Open Window

c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas
45.7 x 40.6 cm. (18 x 16 in.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


What are your feelings about the restored Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Vermeer?

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"Revealing Cupid: Restoration of Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window Completed" - website; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
26 August 2021
 Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window  during the  restoration processThe restoration process on Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1657-59 © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

After a full restoration, and for the first time in over two and a half centuries, Johannes Vermeer’s well-known and loved painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window has been returned to its original condition when it left the artist’s studio. The famous work will be presented to the public as the focal point and highlight of the Johannes Vermeer. On Reflection exhibition starting on 10 September 2021 in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.

The canvas, painted around 1657–1659, was acquired in Paris in 1742 for the collection of Saxon Prince Elector Friedrich Augustus II, and has been one of the principal works in Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie ever since. An X-ray taken of the painting in 1979 showed that there was a fully overpainted picture-within-a-picture of a nude Cupid that adorned the room’s rear wall in the background. Annaliese Mayer-Meintschel first published this fascinating finding in 1982, and it has been cited in many works on the subject. Since then, academics have assumed that Vermeer rejected the Cupid painting as he was unhappy with the composition, and painted over the room’s rear wall himself.

During a restoration and research project that began in 2017 and was supported by a panel of international experts, the team made or re-evaluated X-rays, infrared reflectance spectroscopies and microscopies of the oil painting in the past few years. The backing canvas was also analyzed in detail and research was conducted into the painting’s restoration history. Multiple color samples were taken from

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (during 2017-2021restoration)
c. 1657–1659
Oil on canvas, 83 x 64.5 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Vermeer’s painting and the layers and consistency were analyzed in Dresden Academy of Fine Arts’ Laboratory of Archaeometry (HfBK). These studies played a decisive role in reassessing the extensive overpainting of the Cupid figure in the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. We can now safely state that it was not Vermeer himself who painted over the background, and that the retrospective change was applied at least several decades after the painting was made, and significantly after the artist’s death. A full-surface X-ray fluorescence scan of the painting, conducted with the support of the Rijksmuseum in 2017, confirmed our new findings on the overpainting.

Given the strong evidence that a third party had painted over the Cupid retroactively, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD), endorsed by the panel of experts, made the decision in early 2018 to remove the overpainted layer. Christoph Schölzel, a conservator at the SKD Paintings Conservation Workshop, took on overall responsibility for restoration of the painting.

Following completion of the restoration process in early 2021, the painting now has an entirely new look. A standing Cupid with a bow, arrows and two masks has been revealed in the background, enriching the room’s rear wall as a picture-within-a-picture. The figure is treading on the masks of pretence lying on the ground before him – a sign of sincere love overcoming deception and hypocrisy. The presence of Cupid in the composition is a meaningful "comment" that adds greatly to the painting’s message.

Stephan Koja, Director of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister und Skulpturensammlung bis 1800: “It is in Girl Reading a Letter that Vermeer discovers his own, distinct style. It marks the beginning of a series of paintings in which individuals, generally women, pause during an activity to find a moment of calm, and to reflect. In this series, Vermeer examines fundamental existential questions, in particular in this piece: Restoring the Cupid in the background shows us the master from Delft’s true intention. Beyond the superficial romantic context, it makes a fundamental statement on the nature of true love. Until now, we could only see this as a fragment. Now we know what a key role it plays in his oeuvre.”

Uta Neidhardt, Head Conservator: “The changed appearance of the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, including the overpainting removed at the borders of the canvas, gives us an opportunity to reconsider the painting’s composition and how it works visually. The borders appear curiously unfinished—perhaps Vermeer covered it with an actual wooden frame, which is why he left them in such an "open" condition. If we assume that he had planned to use such a construction, we immediately recall the experimental works by church interior painters from Delft, with their trompe-l’oeil curtains, or Pieter de Hooch’s intricate interiors.”

No other justification remains in support of the restoration besides the experts subjective interpretation of the results of the laboratory tests. As conclusive evidence, they maintain that the microscopic cross-section shows a significant amount of dirt on the original layer of varnish on top of Cupid (and beneath the repainting), which they believe could only have accumulated over one or two decades. Nonetheless, keeping in mind the period conditions in terms of heating and lighting (when they still burned wood for heat and candles for illumination), surfaces along with pictures became dirtier and sootier much more quickly. (I am well aware from my childhood in the countryside to what degree the traditional fireplace blackened the walls in the winter, followed by a great whitewashing every spring.)

As far as the discrepancies in tone and the material make-up of the repainted surface, this can also be explained. After completing the earlier version of the painting with walls of a lighter, cooler hue, Vermeer treated it with a concluding varnish, which lent warmer shades to the picture. Painters counted on this result from the start. With time, the layers of varnish and glaze endowed the picture with a more mature tone, and that deeper tone had to be matched at the time of repainting. Obviously, this obscuring layer incorporated color components that differed from those of the original wall. It included more earth-based pigments (umbers and ochres). However, these colors are commonly known to have unreliable powers of coverage, as they grow grey with time. Thanks to this, the dark frame surrounding Cupid eventually ‘bled through’ the surface coating, which was completely uniform at the time of repainting.

Under a microscope, the cross-section of a sample of material taken from the Cupid portion reveals the following layers borne by the canvas: 1. primer; 2. layer of paint (Cupid); 3. varnish and glaze; 4. pollution; 5. another layer of varnish (!) and 6. repainting. Not only do they use the amount of pollution as evidence of later tampering, they also claim that the varnish could not have yellowed so much in that amount of time (while Vermeer lived). Further, the restorer also cites as proof how the color of the covering seeped into the tiny network of cracks in the Cupid’s layer of paint. Still, in my view, how much the varnish layer darkened (together with the extent of the pollution) is a matter of subjective opinion, insofar as painters employ their means individually, in different quantities as their tastes dictate. (Additionally, we must take into account that there were no colorless resins then; so lacquers, by definition, were warm in tone.) As far as the absorption of the wall’s color is concerned, it is puzzling how it could occur through a fresh second layer of insulating (!) varnish which had no time to crack, so there were no fissures. This might have been the precise aim in applying the glaze prior to repainting, so the colors at the Cupid level would not alter the upper coat of paint atop the insulating (!) layer of lacquer. This new finishing layer not only freshened up the colors that had dulled in the meantime, it also lent the picture a warmer shade. In the end, this was the tone that had to be matched when mixing the color used to consign Cupid behind an obliterating wall. Besides, if the double layer of finish were saturated with warm brown and ochre earth tones, then this, too, could provide an explanation for the increased yellowing of the lacquer.

It is a well-known fact that, starting in the Renaissance, the indispensable final gesture of painting was the application of lacquer, which painters accomplished with the means at their disposal. As mentioned above, colorless varnish did not exist. Therefore, at this final stage in their work, they counted on the raw colors being muted by the warm-toned varnish and glaze, thus making the composition more subdued. Vermeer used this method in the case of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window as well. Removing the layer of varnish from this work without a trace is, in itself, a mistake, since the calm of the interior space and melancholy atmosphere disappear as a result. The warm tone was integral to the expression of this mood. Even the project’s curators acknowledged that the picture was suffused with completely different content after the cleaning. The restorer asserted that Girl Reading a Letter, with its cold color palette, could now occupy a more credible position in Vermeer’s oeuvre, arguing that it is most akin to The Milkmaid (1657-1658). While it is true that Vermeer’s pictures were, to begin with, much more colorful and modern than his contemporaries’ genre paintings with dark brown backgrounds; this is due primarily to his interior walls, which typically provide a light backdrop, against which the decorative primary colors (blues, yellows and reds) seem that much fresher. Furthermore, the uncovery process in question ultimately exposes an overcomplicated background in sharp contrast to the austere and tranquil setting found in The Milkmaid.

Vermeer and the Dutch Interior

Alejandro Vergara

Vermeer and the Dutch Interior
2003, pp. 251–252

This painting is part of a group of works painted by Vermeer in the late 1650s which mark the start of his mature period. Other works of this period include Officer and Laughing Girl (New York, The Frick Collection), The Milkmaid (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), and The Glass of Wine (Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie). In these paintings the artist depicts the corner of a relatively large room which is lit through a window on the left side. This compositional formula is inspired by the work of Pieter de Hooch (fig. 1), who nonetheless differs from Vermeer in locating his figures closer to the foreground. Vermeer's figures at this period are smaller than those in his earlier works, while his technique is more precise.

A Woman Drinking with Two Men, and a Serving Woman, Pieter de Hoochfig. 1 A Woman Drinking with Two Men, and a Serving Woman
c. 1658
Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 64.6 cm.
The National Gallery, London

The figure in the background of this simple and ordered interior rests his head on his hand in a melancholy attitude, while in the foreground a young woman takes a wine glass which an elegantly dressed man hands to her. The young woman's smile and the man's attitude indicate that we are witnessing a scene of seduction, and that the girl is largely accepting her admirer's advances.

Also starting at this period is a greater attention to the way in which light falls on the objects and different materials, highlighting the textures. Along with the characteristically self-absorbed character of his figures, the most famous characteristic of Vermeer's work is its lifelikeness, the result of a complex and exquisite exercise in the transformation of reality. Some aspects of this painting allow us to approximate the way in which the artist achieved these ends. The lower frame of the window, for example, directs the spectator's gaze towards a chair which extends the gaze further so that we arrive at the strongly, illuminated letter which the young woman is holding. The reflection of the girl in the window emphasizes the importance of the letter, which becomes the psychological axis of the painting. As in other works by Vermeer, the chair acts to clarify the spatial relations between the elements in the room, in this case the table and the end wall. The open window which reflects the girl's face projects a slight shadow on the wall, echoing its shape and also helping to define the location of the girl's face. The angle of the fruit bowl and the girl's forearm are parallel and thus visually related, so that we connect the golden sleeve of the girl with the large green curtain on the right. This type of formal relation between the elements in the painting defines its visual rhythms, which the spectator becomes aware of in a slow and gradual process.

We know from x-rays that initially the end wall, just above and to the right of the young woman, had a painting of Cupid (fig. 2) ( the same one that appears in A Lady Standing at a Virginal), but that Vermeer eliminated this element in the final composition. This image would have made it clear that the content of the letter which the woman is reading is of an amorous nature. In its initial form, the vanishing point of the perspective would have been in the center of the lower part of the painting of Cupid, which would therefore have been a very important element in the painting. It is revealing of Vermeer's working method that when he removed the painting he did not alter the scene further, other than adding the curtain on the right to balance the visual weight of the other side of the composition. The ability to express the emotions of his figures in a particular situation is one of Vermeer's most unique characteristics. In this case, his decision to remove the painting of Cupid from the end wall results in an exceptionally evocative scene; nothing distracts us from the painting's message, which is the idea of communication with an absent loved one.

The Love Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 2 The Love Letter (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1667–1670
Oil on canvas, 44 x 38.5.cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 3 Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1657–1659
Oil on canvas, 83 x 64.5 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

At the time when this painting was created in the late 1650s, Vermeer was in the process of changing his pictorial technique. Although in some earlier paintings we see the appearances of small dots of light (fig. 3), this technique, which functions to momentarily detain our gaze on specific areas of the painting, becomes ever more widespread in his work. The technique, which was possibly inspired by the images produced by an instrument known as a camera obscura and also has precedents in the work of artists such as Willem Kalf or Willem van Aelst would soon become one of Vermeer's most distinctive characteristics.

The idea of including a curtain in the painting which seems to form part of the space occupied by the spectator has numerous precedents and became popular in Dutch art around the mid-seventeenth century. This device (fig. 4) was partially inspired by reality, as we know from inventories and from paintings of picture collections that some paintings, in particular the most important ones or those that depicted nudes, were covered with cloths.

There are also precedents for this in religious painting, indicating that curtains also added an effect of mystery and surprise to a scene, and contributed to its lifelikeness in that it confused the painted with the real space. The use of a cloth for illusionistic ends has an important classical precedent which Vermeer undoubtedly knew of Pliny the Elder's anecdote in his Natural History in which he recounts that the Greek painter Zeuxis wished to prove his artistic superiority to his rival Parrhasius' and thus painted some grapes which were so realistic that some birds attempted to peck at them. Parrhasius' response was to paint a curtain over the picture which he did with such skill that Zeuxis tried to pull it back.

A Sermon in the Oude Kerk, Delft, Emanuael de Wittefig. 4 D
c. 1651–1652
Oil on panel, 73 x 60 cm.
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The Painting in the 20th c.

In 1742 the Elector of Saxony, August III, acquired this painting, which he believed to be a Rembrandt; the previous year he had bought The Procuress. During the Second World War both pictures were among Dresden's works of art hidden for safety and consequently spared from the British bombing. In 1945 they were seized by the Red Army as booty and secretly taken to Moscow. When the question of returning Dresden's pictures arose, the Soviet minister of culture wanted East Germany to allow two works to remain in Russia in gratitude. His choice, a masterpiece by Giorgione (c. 1476/8–1510) and Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, is evidence of the importance of this early Vermeer. This proposal was dropped and both Vermeer's were among the paintings returned to Dresden in 1955.

Martin Bailey, Vermeer, London, 1995

Vermeer and His Milieu, John Michael Montias

John Michael Montias

Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History
1989, pp. 150–151

By the time he painted the Dresden picture in the late 1650s, Vermeer had completed his artistic training, in the sense that he had finally absorbed the impact of the artistsVan Baburen, Van Loo, Fabritius, Frans van Mieris, Pieter de Hooch, Nicolaes Maeswho decisively influenced the evolution of his style. He had not matured quickly or developed an independent style especially early. He had been late in acknowledging the discoveries in the treatment of light and space that his innovative colleagues of the Delft, Leyden, and Dortrecht schools had pioneered. But he had digested each of these influences fully before going on to study the next development in the modern art of his time. This slow maturation, grafted onto a prodigious natural talent, laid the ground for his later masterpieces.

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