Blog / 2023 / Girl Reading a Letter with Cupid Looming in the Background
January 5, 2023
It turns out Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is not the painting we thought it was. On the left is the version of the artwork we’ve always known, and on the right is the painting that the artist himself created.
Forty-plus years ago, the painting was examined with x-ray, and it was discovered that the painting-within-a-painting of Cupid had been disappeared. At the time, the thinking was that Vermeer painted out the god before putting the work into the world, so the image was left with the blank wall. Then, in 2017, a new analysis determined that Cupid’s coverup happened only after Vermeer’s death, and, in 2021, the artwork was restored to what you see on the right.
The francophone arts newsletter that brought me this astonishing story suggests that the painting-within-a-painting was removed in order to make the artwork more salable. That motivation certainly seems probable, but I can’t help but see the unrestored version of the painting as the stronger composition.
Some of the appeal stems, without a doubt, from my familiarity with the first version I encountered, but my reaction is more than just a resistance to change. The blank wall feels more modern. The bold use of compositional space makes the woman more relatable, despite her clothing. It gives her the dignity of her quiet moment. The open background becomes a representation of what the audience can know of her thoughts—ie nothing.
Meanwhile, the Cupid of the new/original version acts like an old timey thought bubble, foisting a love letter narrative onto this “girl” and reducing the painting to the 17th century’s answer to our chick flicks. It leaves me questioning what makes a particular version of an image more true. Should the artist’s vision always matter more than anything else? Or does the object’s journey make a difference? Should the blank wall be valued because, for three and a half centuries, it was part of this painting?
Unlike Vermeer who was famous for it, I don’t generally paint slices of life. If I’m depicting people, I tend to focus more on portraits—images in which the point is to present a person more than to show the ways they occupy their time. That said, just before the pandemic, I made a handful of genre paintings, including this one of three kids drawing, felting, and listening to music together.
I can’t help but wonder: in a world where Vermeer only ever painted what I like to call Girl Reading a Letter with Cupid Looming in the Background, would I have left the choice of music in this image up to you?
Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!
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