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Cinema & The Arts as Sermons: The Mysterious Vermeer - The Secret Behind a 350-year-old Painting

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Video from DW Documentary

The Mysterious Vermeer - The Secret Behind a 350-year-old Painting

"What’s the significance of the discovery of a naked Cupid in a 350-year-old painting by Vermeer? After years of study, the hidden figure was revealed in the "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window" painting, housed at the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. It was a sensational find. The film traces the many twists and turns that this picture has experienced in its history. The justification for re-exhibiting the painting in its new form is a sensation: the Cupid was apparently painted over after the artist’s death. The enigmatic paintings of Jan Vermeer have fascinated art lovers for centuries. His oeuvre has been one of the most difficult for experts to conclusively decipher and has frequently been the subject of controversial discussions on a global level. Now, a gallery in the German city of Dresden has assembled the world’s top Vermeer aficionados, high-tech imaging techniques and plenty of cash. Why? Because what began as a regular restoration of a painting has now resulted in the radical alteration of an iconic image. But who decides how paintings from the past should be analyzed? And how to respond to any surprising findings? This film ponders the prerogative of interpretation in art, in the past and the present. Will the revelation of Cupid finally help to uncover the enduring secrets of Vermeer?" from video introduction

Changing the Context

It is amazing what happens over time when someone decides to alter something such as the composition of a painting. It is unknow why this was done and exactly when. Until now this beautiful painting was a young girl reading a letter. Now we know that love was involved! As it turns out there is a total now of four Vermeer paintings with Cupids in them. How exciting that we now can see this painting as Vermeer intended. - Andy

The Mysterious Cupid and Johannes Vermeer’s Paintings

Johannes Vermeer is both one of the most loved and most mysterious painters in European art. Moderately known during his lifetime, completely forgotten after his death until the 19th century, he is now one of the brightest stars of the Dutch Golden Age. Only 35 masterpieces are now attributed to him and on most of them, we can spot the same everyday objects jewelry and interior decoration items. Among them is the painting with Cupid—painted-within-a-painting by Vermeer four times—each time a little differently. What is his secret?

Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

This story is based on the research done in preparation for the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden exhibition Johannes Vermeer. On Reflection. Originally, this sold-out exhibition was to last until January 2nd, but on the basis of the current Corona Emergency Ordinance in Germany, the exhibition is closed from 22 November until 12 December 2021. This year, Dresden, the capital of Saxony in Germany, is the main place to be for all Vermeer lovers. The exhibition Johannes Vermeer. On Reflection presented in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden collects ten Vermeer paintings from around the world, accompanied by a selection of 50 works of Dutch genre painting that illustrate relationships and interactions between the works of Vermeer and his contemporary artist colleagues. Ten of the 35 masterpieces attributed to him – that is a real treat! But the jewel in the crown is this one – a recently renovated Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window from SKD’s collection. From 1979, thanks to the X-ray analysis, it was known that it had an overpainted figure of Cupid on the wall in the background. This year, the restorers brought the little god of desire, erotic love, attraction, and affection to the daylight.

The painting-within-a-painting of Cupid was covered for unknown reasons in the 18th century. The museum conservationists cleaned the painting and removed the overpainted layers. You can read more about the whole process here. As a result, the painting, now looking like it was finished by the artist yesterday, made art historians rethink how Vermeer’s masterpiece should be interpreted.

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