Peeking bit by bit under a Vermeer.
DRESDEN, Germany — After nearly three centuries behind a layer of paint, a naked Cupid has surfaced in one of the world’s bestloved artworks, drastically altering the background of a quiet interior scene.
The plump, golden-locked god in Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window,” was revealed in a restoration project that Stephan Koja, director of the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden, Germany, described as “a detective story and an adventure.”
The painting is the focus of an exhibition at the gallery that runs through January 2. It is one of just 35 works definitively attributed to Vermeer: The Dresden show, called “Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection,” unites 10 of them alongside works by contemporaries from whom Vermeer learned, including Pieter de Hooch and Gerard ter Borch.
Ever since an X-ray of “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” was made more than 40 years ago, scholars have been aware of the Cupid, who stares out of a painting within the painting. The section, in the upper right of the canvas, was hidden under a rectangle of paint. But they had assumed that Vermeer had erased the god himself.
So when curators at the Dresden State Art Collections, which oversees the Old Masters Picture Gallery, decided to restore the painting in 2017, there were no plans to expose him. But the rectangle responded differently to a solvent that restorers used to remove the varnish, Mr. Koja said.
That suggested the paint contained different components from Vermeer’s, making it more likely that it was applied by another hand. The darker shade also suggested a later artist might have tried to match the original paint after it had darkened with age.
A panel of restorers agreed to remove microscopic samples for testing. Analysis of the fragments found the Cupid was overpainted years — even decades — after Vermeer completed the work in the late 1650s, Mr. Koja said.
“It was clear the top layer of paint wasn’t by Vermeer,” Mr. Koja said. “It was a distortion by a foreign hand against the intention of the artist.”
Restorers exposed a strip beneath the painted rectangle, more than a centimeter wide. Not only was the brushwork on the Cupid Vermeer’s, it was also in excellent condition, Mr. Koja said.
The panel agreed that Christoph Schölzel, a painting restorer at the Dresden museum, should expose the Cupid in full. Mr. Schölzel took a year and a half, working little by little with a scalpel under a microscope.
While the blush on the girl’s cheeks made clear that she was reading a love letter, the god of desire adds a message about the kind of love Vermeer might have meant. His Cupid is shown trampling on a mask, a symbol of deception, to show that love conquers deceit and dishonesty. The same Cupid appears in three other Vermeers.
The discovery has also prompted speculation about another of Vermeer’s works, “Woman With a Pearl Necklace.” Analysis has shown that a map hanging on the wall in the painting was painted over.
But Katja Kleinert, an official at the Berlin State Museums, where the painting is, said that analysis conducted less than two decades ago showed that the map was never painted to completion.
“It was only sketched,” she said. “We are pretty sure our wall was painted by Vermeer.”