Finding a naked guy.
You've got me.
This is about "one of the world's best-loved artworks" (quote New York Times), an oil painting by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. He lived from 1632 to 1675 specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life.
Middle-class life in the 17th century?
He is (very, very) famous for showing what wasn't shown before. Vermeer taught the world to see ordinary beauty. He was a quiet and introspective artist, and his paintings weren't famous in his lifetime (he left his wife and children in debt when he died).
You wanted to tell me a detective story.
Vermeer produced not even 50 paintings, of which 34 have survived. This story is about one of these paintings, named "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window" (Dutch: Brieflezend meisje bij het venster). It features a young Dutch blonde girl standing at an open window, in profile, reading a letter. A red drapery hangs over the top of the window glass, which has opened inward and reflects her in its lower right quadrant. For many years the attribution of the painting was lost, with first Rembrandt and then Pieter de Hooch being credited for the work before it was properly identified in 1880. After World War II, the painting was in possession of the Soviet Union. After the death of Joseph Stalin, the Soviets decided in 1955 to return the art to Germany. The picture has been in Dresden since then.
Still no detective story.
The wall in front of which the young Dutch woman is standing appears blank (it's time to have a look at the painting). - But that's not how Vermeer painted it. 40 years ago, when an X-ray of "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window" was made, scholars discovered the Cupid.
In classical mythology, Cupid is the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection. He is often portrayed as the son of the love goddess Venus and the god of war, Mars. He is also known in Latin as Amor ("Love"), and his Greek counterpart is Eros.
Got it. Go on.
The Cupid was hidden under a rectangle of paint behind the Girl's head. So it wasn't new that the Cupid was there. But it was always assumed that Vermeer had erased the god himself. As Catherine Hickley writes for the New York Times, when curators at the Dresden State Art Collections first decided to restore the painting in 2017, there were no plans to expose him. However, the restorers made an exciting discovery. The rectangle responded differently from the rest of the painting to a solvent the restorers used to remove the varnish. The presumption: The paint contained different components from Vermeer's, making it more likely to be applied by another hand.
Give me more evidence.
After that discovery, the museum appointed an advisory panel of Vermeer experts and restores. Microscopic samples from the painting were taken and tested. The result: The Cupid was overpainted years, maybe decades after Vermeer completed the work in the late 1650s. As a consequence, the Cupid was exposed in full. It took a year and a half. This is what the painting looks like today.
Did the Cupid change the message of the painting?
Stephan Koja, Director of the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden, said to the New York Times that the painting had gained something, not only in terms of composition and colour balance but also with respect to its content. While the blush on the girl's cheeks previously made clear that she was reading a love letter, the god of desire on the wall 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.
Who painted over the picture?
It's not the only Vermeer painting that's been painted over. Later generations altered others to meet contemporary tastes. But it is not known who painted over the god nor why or when. It is not even impossible that it was Vermeer himself.
Finish the picture.
If you can, do it yourself and make your way to Dresden, Germany. The "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window" is the focus of an exhibition (called "Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection") that opened last week by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, running through 2 January 2022.