How art restorers uncover hidden details in works of art


Experts at the Dresden State Art Collections were astonished when they took a close look at Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter in Front of an Open Window” using technical equipment: under a layer of painting was hiding a young Cupid.

The artist had painted the figure on the wall behind the young girl, who seems to be reading innocently. After two years of working to reveal the original, the painting was presented to a surprised audience.

Alongside Rembrandt and Rubens, the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) is considered one of the most famous artists of the Baroque period. His “Daughter Reading a Letter” was and is considered one of the best works of the Dutch Golden Age between 1600 and 1700, during which the Netherlands prospered politically, commercially and culturally.

With only 37 paintings, Vermeer’s work is rather small, contributing to the excitement that the discovery of Dresden sparked in the world.

The museum now celebrates the painter with the exhibition “Johannes Vermeer. On reflection. “

“Discovering parts of paintings that have been drawn is not always as meaningful as in the case of Vermeer,” explains Maria Galen, modern art expert and gallery owner in the town of Greven in West Germany.

“Vermeer has used the figure of Cupid four times – as a ‘picture in the picture’,” according to Uta Neidhardt, senior art restorer at the Dresden Museum.

State-of-the-art lab research and testing confirmed unambiguously that the God of Love, painted in shades of brown and ocher, was covered by a different hand that also obscured the love statement Vermeer originally wanted to make. But the case is not always so clear.

In search of the perfect photo

What complicates things is the fact that the pictures can be painted in a variety of ways.

The Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne is currently organizing an exhibition called “Revealed! Painting techniques from Martini to Monet. A section of the exhibition is devoted to such artistic interventions.

“Painters have always sought the perfect image,” explains Iris Schaefer, chief restorer of the museum. “There are only a few paintings that are free from repentance,” she adds.

“Pentimenti”, whose singular form is “pentimento”, essentially means the presence of images that have been painted. This includes corrections, pattern and color changes, and even artistic interventions until the artwork is completely destroyed.

But what drives artists to change their work? “There were many reasons for this,” says Schaefer. Sometimes artists had doubts about their self-esteem, often real life crises. Here again, criticism from observers, art dealers or buyers had consequences for the work.

But were the “pentimenti,” or subsequent alterations made to a painting by someone else, also performed to adjust the work of art to new moral ideals? According to Schaefer, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two.

In order to reveal the secrets of ancient paintings, restorers today use a growing arsenal of investigative methods. Even observation with the naked eye can reveal brush strokes that indicate possible overpainting. Stereomicroscopes allow 3D vision with up to 90 times magnification. X-rays, infrared and ultraviolet rays seep into different depths of the image surface and convey canvases of paint or signature lines.

Art technologists at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum were amazed when they x-rayed “A Couple” by August Renoir (1841-1919).

Instead of the man and woman standing together in a park seen in the 1868 oil on canvas painting, the x-ray revealed a completely different image of two women sitting opposite each other. “We thought we had removed the bad paint from the developing fluid,” Schaefer recalls.

The chemistry of color

Even more amazing is macro X-ray fluorescence analysis, or MA-XRF, which is a sophisticated method that allows the observer to look below the surface of an object without causing damage.

The process helps to recognize the composition of colors and to understand the painting process. As part of a large research project, the Frankfurt Städel Museum has already exhibited unknown parts of the Altenberger altarpiece using a process called “Element mapping”.

Since spring 2021, one of the museum’s main paintings, “The Blindness of Samson” by Rembrandt has been scanned.

The master’s works are researched not only from the point of view of art history, but also with the help of the latest technology, as was the case during the vast research and restoration project called “Operation Night Watch Which was produced by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

At the time of Rembrandt, the owners of his famous painting “The Night Watch” cut it with scissors so that it could fit between the doors. The restoration process allowed the experts to reconstruct the missing pieces of the work.

Cologne-based art restorer Iris Schaefer admires world museums in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London and Washington, which have the financial resources for devices that cost millions. “It’s amazing to see all that is possible,” she says, although artists weren’t always happy with everything that resulted from the technology and art of restoration.

A change in attitude

Over the past centuries, artists have restored their own works and with their skills, they have also been hired to maintain and improve other works of art. Even in the 19th century, it was common to repaint and restore damaged works of art. “I can’t believe the artists were happy with this,” Schaefer says.

It was not until around 1900 that painters began to specialize as restorers and the profession was born.

To become a restaurateur in Germany today, you need a university degree. Art history is required, as is an understanding of technology. “Our profession is tied to a code of conduct,” says Schaefer. “There are strict rules regarding intervention in art and cultural objects. The integrity of the work of art has the highest priority. “There has been a change in attitude here,” she adds.

A change that also proved beneficial for Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter in Front of an Open Window”. For a long time, the painting represented the thin interior of a chaste soul. The empty wall with the delicate silhouette of the young girl underlined the contemplative stillness of the work.

After 200 years, the painting now tells a whole different story: behind the young girl hides a naked young man. The window is open, the curtain in front of Cupid is pulled to the side, a bowl of fruit is overflowing with shiny apples and delicate, fuzzy peaches, perhaps showing the tension between the calm outside and the tumult inside, even the longing for love. Vermeer’s original secret seems to have been revealed.

This article has been translated from German.

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