December 20, 2021
IN DRESDEN, a city renowned for the picture-perfect restoration by which it looks the same and yet entirely strange, an old tale of love and deception is playing out.
Since Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657–59, arrived in the Saxon capital from Paris in 1742, a girl in a green dress has been intently studying a letter by pale daylight against a white wall. As other of the Dutch master’s pictures, and indeed many of those made by his contemporaries, tend to do, the unadorned interior offers no clue as to what she might be thinking. Instead, what long impressed viewers about this particular girl was her apparent modernity. She was free, it seemed, of mythology and religion, exemplifying a unity of form and substance, a kind of pure presence. But alas. Now on view at Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister is the remarkable outcome of the painting’s most recent conservation effort. Behind the girl in the green dress is no white wall but the domineering feature of a large painting of Cupid leaning on his bow and stepping on two masks fallen to the ground. In the famous story, Psyche wanders the earth looking for Cupid, her lost love, harassed by Venus’s handmaids, Worry and Sadness. Perhaps this is the state in which Vermeer’s girl was left for all these years. But finally, love has triumphed over disguise, and Psyche, we might say with thought to Canova’s sculpture, has been revived by Cupid’s kiss.
This is not the first mask to have fallen off this work of Vermeer’s. When Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, bought thirty paintings from the Prince of Carignan’s celebrated collection, an extra work was thrown in as a bonus. It is thought likely that the Cupid was painted over in order to pass it off as a Rembrandt at a time when Vermeer was forgotten (a greater possibility when your verified output totals less than forty canvases). It was later attributed to Govaert Flinck and then to Pieter de Hooch before it was recognized as a Vermeer in 1859. So, for much of its history, not only has this painting been quite different from what we thought, we didn’t even know who made it.
The irony here is that what has been revealed through this restoration of authenticity is something much more evasive and slippery than what we knew, something in fact resistant to the idea of originality, or truth as such: an allegory. In a seminal essay on the allegorical impulse first published in October in 1980, Craig Owens stressed that “allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not . . . restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics.” We now find Vermeer’s girl, as Tom Ripley in the final scene of Anthony Minghella’s film, in a room full of mirrors flapping on their hinges, constantly changing the picture. The film’s tagline: “How far would you go to become someone else?” A pointed question to allegorists, postmodernists, and art forgers alike. In the painting, we see the girl’s blushed face reflected in the window, a window to her soul, perhaps, her psyche blurrier than ever.
It is often said that, above all, Johannes Vermeer was a painter of light. The people in his pictures need the light to read and write and draw maps—form follows function; that’s why they’re always by a window. It is the light of enlightenment, of reasonand clarity of mind. But, as Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. writes in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition in Dresden, this signature of the painter’s can be understood as much more theatrical: “Vermeer often took great liberties in his depiction of light for compositional effect . . . He was intently aware of how light could create mood and impact the psychological and spiritual character of a scene through its focus and intensity.” Just as prominent as the light are the curtains that might have obscured it, the red one held aside by the open window, and the one in moss green that lines the whole right side of the picture, ready to hide the entire scene from view.
Within this mis en abyme of dramatic effect and trompe l’oeil, the Cupid establishes a solid thematic for the picture—love—about which, qua the allegorical (il)logic it imposes, it ends up asking more questions than it can provide answers to. What do the masks imply of the letter? And what is in Cupid’s left hand, covered by the green curtain? In another work by the artist, A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, c. 1670–72, the same Cupid holds a playing card with the number one on it, a well-known emblem at the time inferring that true love is only for one. Is that one another, or simply yourself? Vermeer’s other paintings, as well as those of contemporaries (several of whom are represented in the Dresden show) become additional texts through which to read this girl, herself reading a letter. To put it plainly: The plot thickens.
With the white wall—or the white cube, for that matter—modernity promised a rupture from history, a blank slate against which a work of art could, as Brian O’Doherty wrote, remain “isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself.” But the lesson of this painting, as has been the lesson of modernism more generally, is that the white wall is only another mask. Rather than breaking with art history by showing us a purely private and secular scene, Vermeer creates a metaspace for it. I’m reminded of what Dean Kissick wrote recently about Facebook’s Meta rebrand: that it leads us deeper into the “forest of illusions.” And, following on from that, of Francesco Queirolo’s famous Disillusion, 1753–59, a sculpture of a man being freed from a fishnet by a small angel. Of course the extraordinary dexterity with which the net was crafted from a single block of marble is itself a feat of illusion, and makes of the work a Scooby-Doo–type villain to be unmasked ad infinitum. With his layers and layers of curtains and reflective surfaces, Vermeer plays a similar trick, and with the painting inside the painting ropes the viewer into the game. Girl Reading a Letter becomes both artwork and metatext, a floodgate for meaning.
Owens understands allegory as a palimpsest: one text read through another, expression added to expression, extravagant and always in excess. This also means that it is expendable, that it can be ignored, and this, Owens tells us, is how modernism recuperated allegorical works for itself, with or without actually painting them over. But if, by the logic of the palimpsest, no layer is truer than another, could this coat of white not be understood as a genuine augmentation of the original, an addition rather than a defacement? As evidenced by Dresden’s uncannily splendid rebuilt towers, it remains a very real question whether paintings, buildings, or other things possess an essence to which they ought to be restored, or if the marks made by time and history do not transform them beyond authorial intention in ways that are both complex and enriching. The new restoration of Girl Reading a Letter gratifies our fetish for authenticity and affirms the cult of originality and artistic intention within the Western ontology of art. Will the picture ever be painted over again, or is its history, and ours, finally, sealed? Perhaps the white wall has not disappeared, but, like a deck of cards, the layers of the palimpsest have been shuffled. A copy of the previous version hangs alongside the original version in the current exhibition.
A final allegory: I recently met a pair of dogs, inseparable and identical, named Psyche and Cupid. They were at war throughout the day, often drawing blood, but at night they’d inevitably lie tangled up with one another in sleep. And in that way, perhaps, the battle continues between Vermeer’s mysterious girl in green and the armed Cupid on the wall: between revelation and concealment, thorny allegorical temperament and burgeoning modernist clarity. All are happy bedfellows in the end.
Kristian Vistrup Madsen is the author of Doing Time: Essays on Using People (Floating Opera Press, 2021).