Removing the varnish
© SKD, Foto: Wolfgang Kreische

Restoration of Johannes Vermeer’s Painting “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”

After the successful restoration of Vermeer’s early work “The Procuress” in 2002–2004 by Prof. Marlies Giebe, art historians and conservators became increasingly interested in the second world-famous and revered painting by Vermeer that is held in Dresden, “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”. The earliest conservation research as well as art historical and technical examinations undertaken on the Dresden painting took place in the 1970s, when the work first became a subject of extensive art-historical analysis.

[Translate to English:] Beginn der Restaurierung von Johannes Vermeers Gemälde „Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster“

In the past ten years, further examinations have been carried out, which have concentrated above all on the complex process of the painting’s creation, its spatial construction and the painting’s position within the oeuvre. Important new insights found expression in the exhibition “Der frühe Vermeer (Early Vermeer)” in 2010, which, in its Dresden edition, dedicated a special section to “Girl Reading a Letter”.

Considering its age, the painting, created circa 1657–1659, is well preserved and is in a stable conservation condition. However, the surface is compromised due to darkened layers of varnish, old retouching and over-painting. A major reason to restore the painting was the reduced readability of Vermeer’s original painting.

A girl standing at an open window reading a letter
© SKD, Foto: Klut / Estel
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657-1659

[Translate to English:] Restaurierung

The restoration is taking place in the paintings conservation department at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and is being performed by paintings conservator Dr. Christoph Schölzel. Accompanying the restoration is a research project about the painting, carried out in cooperation with the archaeometry laboratory at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden, the Doerner-Institut at the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and The National Gallery in London. 

Vermeer's Colours

Restoration of “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Johannes Vermeer

Removing the Varnish from “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Johannes Vermeer

[Translate to English:] Restaurierung 2

At the outset of the restoration, a symposium was held in March 2017 with colleagues from Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna and Dresden, colleagues who have investigated and restored works by the artist in the past years. They were invited by the Dresden Gemäldegalerie and will continue to accompany the conservation project and provide their professional input.

The research and conservation project is made possible in this form thanks to the generous support of the Hata Foundation in Tokyo.

Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” will be presented to our visitors when the renovation of the Gemäldegalerie in the Semperbau is complete and the museum reopens in 2019. It can already be announced as a highlight of the new permanent exhibition.

The acquisition and rediscovery of the painting in Dresden

The painting “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” was acquired for the collection of the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, August III, in the spring of 1742 through a stroke of good fortune. After the Saxon Secretary of Legation, Samuel de Brais, had successfully arranged the purchase of 30 paintings from the private collection of the Prince of Carignan in Paris, he was given the “Girl Reading a Letter” as an extra gift “outside the business deal”, as he mentioned in a letter. At that time, the painting was regarded as a “Rembrandt”, which shows that the exceptional quality of this work was certainly appreciated. The artist Johannes Vermeer, on the other hand, had by that time been completely forgotten outside Holland.

half length portrait of king August III with wig and harnass, pastel
© SKD, Foto: Elke Estel/Hans-Peter Klut
Anton Raphael Mengs, Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, King August III of Poland, 1745

The acquisition and rediscovery of the painting in Dresden 2

The first mention of the painting in Dresden was in the inventory drawn up by Pietro Guarienti (1747/50) where it was again cited as a work “in the manner of Rembrandt”. The first printed Dresden Gallery catalogue, published in 1765, listed it as a work of the Rembrandt School, an attribution which was further refined in 1783 when it was ascribed to Govaert Flinck, a pupil of Rembrandt. From 1826 the “Girl Reading a Letter” in the Dresden collection was regarded as a painting by Pieter de Hooch who, like Vermeer, was active in Delft.

A girl standing at an open window reading a letter
© SKD, Foto: Klut / Estel
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657-1659, Detail

The acquisition and rediscovery of the painting in Dresden 2 a

In 1859, however, the French art historian Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré (1807–1869) alias William Bürger visited the Dresden Gallery. He was undertaking a spectacular tour of European art collections in order to examine paintings which might be attributable to the enigmatic artist whom he dubbed the “Sphinx of Delft”. In the Gemäldegalerie he was able to confirm his hypothesis that the “Girl Reading a Letter” was a further autograph work by “Vermeer of Delft” and was even signed. In fact, other art scholars before Thoré-Bürger had already considered the possibility that the Dresden painting might be attributable to Johannes Vermeer, but this idea had been very unpopular and so it was only in the 1860s that it was finally accepted. In 1862 the attribution was recorded in the Dresden Gallery catalogue drawn up by Julius Hübner, where the painting was now listed correctly and permanently under the heading “Meer (Jan van der). Né à Delfft vers 1632”.

[Translate to English:] Eintrag zu Johannes Vermeer im Galeriekatalog von Julius Hübners 1862

Dresden gallery catalogue entry for Johannes Vermeer by Julius Hübner 1862
© Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Bettina Forger
Dresden gallery's catalogue entry for Johannes Vermeer by Julius Hübner 1862

The acquisition and rediscovery of the painting in Dresden 3

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the “Girl Reading a Letter” underwent several restoration treatments, as documented in the restoration files of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. These included relining the painting with a new canvas, cleaning the surface, removing old and adding new areas of retouching, and applying further layers of varnish to the paint surface. In the earliest reference to its restoration in Dresden, written in 1838, it is also noted that the “Girl Reading a Letter” had “certainly been in the hands of an earlier restorer”.

[Translate to English:] Gal.-Nr. 1336_Vermeer_unter Restauratorenlampen

Gemäldeausschnitt unter dem Licht von Restauratorenlampen
© SKD, Foto: SKD

The acquisition and rediscovery of the painting in Dresden 4

During the Second World War, the “Girl Reading a Letter” was removed for safekeeping to a storage facility at Königstein Fortress in Saxon Switzerland. After the painting – like nearly all the works of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie – had been taken to the USSR as spoils of war in 1945, it was returned to the government of the GDR around ten years later along with the rest of the collection. Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter” has once more been on display in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie in the Semper Building since June 1956.

Large woooden boxes were loaded on a truck
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Gertrud Rudloff-Hille
Loading of Dresden paintings in front of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow in October 1955

[Translate to English:] Impressionen

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