One of Vermeer’s Most Famous Works Has a Hidden Painting Inside

published Aug 31, 2021
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Credit: Martin Bergsma/

At some point during its 360-year lifespan, Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” received a massive makeover that was just recently undone. Thanks to a restoration effort 40 years in the making, Vermeer’s painting now looks just like it did when it left the artists’ studio back in 1659.

In 1979, an x-ray of the piece showed that the bare wall behind the girl wasn’t actually bare at all. Underneath the cream-colored background hid a full-length Cupid painting that experts assumed Vermeer covered up himself before releasing the painting into the world. 

However, restoration of the piece couldn’t begin until 2017, and when conservators used infrared photography and lab testing to gain a better understanding of the Cupid mystery, they realized someone else had actually painted over Vermeer’s Cupid in the decades following the painting’s completion.

Conservators at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, Germany, where the painting will be the star of an upcoming Vermeer exhibit opening in September, took several microscopic color samples and analyzed how these colors were layered. In doing so, it became clear that Cupid was actually painted over several years after Vermeer had died.

Having been completely restored, which also required conservators to remove several layers of yellowed varnish alongside the overpainting, “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” looks like a completely different work of art — and the details Vermeer intended to be seen are breathing new life into the famous painting.

In fact, the entire meaning of the work has shifted. In the painting behind the girl, Cupid, the god of love, steps on one of two masks with his right foot, which can be interpreted as love conquering deception, thus adding more backstory to the painting’s subject and contents of that letter she’s holding.

Overpainting is an important part of any restoration project, as it’s used to fill in cracks or areas in which paint has flaked off. Though, historically, overpainting was also commonly used when owners of paintings wanted to alter a work to better fit their aesthetic or to make an antique painting look more modern, which likely explains why Vermeer’s piece was retouched.

Luckily, it’s back to its original state and Vermeer fans can now enjoy the piece as the artist intended.