Vermeer’s Cupid Revealed!

Vermeer, "Girl at the Window," (with recent restoration revealing image of Cupid), c. 1658

Vermeer, “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window,” (with recent restoration revealing image of Cupid), c. 1658. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Like many other art historians, I have been fascinated by the recent article in The Art Newspaper which announced that a hidden figure of Cupid has, though restoration work, become visible in Vermeer’s painting Girl Reading a Letter at an OpenWindow.  This image of Cupid has been known for about forty years due to x-ray scans, but it was thought to have been overpainted by Vermeer himself. However, new studies have revealed that the Cupid was painted out of the scene several decades after Vermeer had died.

This figure of Cupid is actually familiar to those familiar with Vermeer’s art: it also appears in another painting by Vermeer, A Lady Standing at a Virginal (1670, shown below). In fact, Vermeer placed Cupid in almost the same compositional place as Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.  Vermeer would often use similar props or compositional devices in his paintings, so the discovery of this new Cupid is consistent with what we have know about Vermeer’s work. There is even a “Cupid” item that is listed in Vermeer’s inventory, so he may have owned this painting himself.

Vermeer, "Lady Standing at a Virginal," 1670. National Gallery of Art, London

Vermeer, “Lady Standing at a Virginal,” 1670. National Gallery of Art, London

I have a strong hunch that the Cupid figure was taken out of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window in order to make it more salable. As an artist, Vermeer fell into obscurity after his death. Art dealers in the 18th and 19th centuries reattributed to his paintings to better known artists from the 17th century, likely due to lack of information, but it also undoubtedly in an effort to make more money.1 For example, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was thought to be a painting by Rembrandt when it was acquired by the Elector of Saxony in 1742.It seems likely to me that the Cupid was painted out sometime before the Elector of Saxony purchased the painting, since Rembrandt often has muted, dark backgrounds that don’t include framed paintings of Cupids. It makes sense to me that a dealer might encourage the Cupid to be painted out, in order for the attribution to seem more plausible.

Perhaps this Cupid figure – despite being covered up with paint – has helped imbue this painting with a bit of luck over the centuries: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window  was hidden for safekeeping during World War II and escaped destruction during the massive bombing of Dresden in 1945. Later that year the painting was seized by the Red Army and taken to Russia as booty. After the war, the Soviet Minister of Culture wanted to East Germany to keep this painting in Russia as a token of gratitude for Russian assistance, but the proposal was dropped and the painting returned to Dresden in 1955. I remember specifically going to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden in August 2017 to see this painting, but I was disappointed to learn that it had been taken off of view for conservation purposes – my guess is that they already were working to clean this painting and reveal this Cupid figure back then.

Which Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window  do you prefer? The newly-restored version (shown at the top of the pose) or the overpainted version (shown below)? I have to admit, it will take a while for me to get used to the fact that this girl is no longer reading her letter “by herself” in visual isolation – there is another commanding figure in the room! Hopefully I’ll get more adjusted to the appearance over the next year; it is expected to take that long for all of the overpaint paint to be removed from the Cupid figure.

Vermeer, "Girl Reading a Letter at a Window," c. 1658

Vermeer, “Girl Reading a Letter at a Window,” c. 1658. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

1 The painting was also described as being “in the manner of Rembrandt” in 1747 and then in 1801 was described as the work of Rembrandt’s pupil Govaert Flinck. Between 1826-1860, the painting was attributed to the domestic painter Pieter de Hooch, with the correct attribution to Vermeer not appearing until 1862. For more information, see Arthur K. Wheelock, ed., Johannes Vermeer (Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 1995), 56-57. Available online here: https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/johannes-vermeer.pdf

2 For more information on art dealers and their effect on Vermeer’s posthumous reputation, see Emma Barker’s “The Making of a Canonical Artist: Vermeer” in The Changing Status of the Artist (Open University Press, 1999), 201-4. Limited preview available here: https://books.google.com/books?id=A_1Ady0GAuUC&lpg=PP1&dq=changing%20status%20of%20the%20artist&pg=PA204#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Fragonard and Morisot?

Berthe Morisot, "Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, 18 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (46 × 71.8 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art

Berthe Morisot, “Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, 18 1/8 × 28 1/4 in. (46 × 71.8 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art

The post that you are reading is a very different one than the first one that I originally wrote this evening. I recently read in The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint that Berthe Morisot was the descendant of the painter Jean-Honore Fragonard, and I hoped to write a post that explored that relationship between the two. However, as I researched, I found conflicting information about how Morisot was either the granddaughter of Fragonard, the great-niece of Fragonard, or the great-great-niece of Fragonard. So I began to comb through the genealogical timelines of the Morisot family and realized that I couldn’t find a clear ancestral connection between the artists at all. Dozens of sources claim that this connection comes through the family of Berthe’s mother, who was named Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas, although as of yet I can’t find the origin of this claim in writing. I can assert though, that Morisot is not the granddaughter of Fragonard: her paternal grandparents were Tiburce Pierre Morisot and Claude Elisabeth Morisot; her maternal grandparents were Jean Simon Joseph Thomas and Caroline Françoise Marie Mayniel.

Chronologically, it seems to be that Fragonard lived four generations before Morisot. Her only two great-grandparents that I know of (her grandmother’s parents, whose names were Jean Henri Mayniel and Josephine Anne Victoire de Ménard) were both born in 1760. That doesn’t go back far enough to meet up with Fragonard, who was born in 1732. Other branches of Berthe Morisot’s family line don’t seem to go back far enough, at least through online genealogical records. I finally found an archived excerpt of  Anne Higgonet’s 1995 book Berthe Morisot, which explains that “family tradition claims indirect descent from the painter Fragonard.” Is this actually just a “family tradition” then, but an unsubstantiated one? If that’s the case, we need to stop repeating it in scholarship or take Higgonet’s approach to explain the relationship has just been merely “claimed” or rumored through family tradition.

I can see how it is appealing to connect these two artists together. Fragonard painted many outdoor scenes that depicted aristocrats engaged in romantic or pleasurable pursuits. Likewise, Morisot painted plein air and often depicted members of the bourgeoisie. I also like thinking about how they both were drawn to the subject matter of a woman reading: Fragonard’s Woman Reading (c. 1776, shown below) was made almost exactly one hundred years before Morisot’s Reading (The Green Umbrella) from 1873 (shown above). It is also clear to see how Fragonard’s lively brushwork (especially seen in the fabric of the painting) helps to open the door for the loose, painterly strokes of the Impressionists like Morisot.

Fragonard, "A Young Girl Reading," c. 1776. Oil on canvas. National gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Fragonard, “A Young Girl Reading,” c. 1776. Oil on canvas. National gallery of Art, Washington, DC

One thing is certain: if Morisot was a descendant of Fragonard, she never met the artist. Fragonard died in 1806 and Morisot was born in 1841. The one thing that makes the ancestral connection believable in some regard is that Fragonard’s reputation and career fell into a decline during the end of his lifetime due to the upheaval of the French Revolution.1 He even remained relatively unknown for the first half of the 19th century and was even omitted from scholarship.2 So he would have seemed like an odd choice to claim kinship in the 19th century, unless the kinship either was actual or derived from family lore that began in the 18th century!

If you can fill in the genealogical record or add to the connection (or lack thereof) between Fragonard and Morisot, please share! I’m also curious to learn how this “family tradition” has been upheld in scholarship – who was the first to pen down this connection? Was it Berthe Morisot herself or it is in an Impressionist review? So far the earliest mention I have found is from 1904.

Regardless of the ancestral connection, I am particularly struck at how often this connection has been repeated in scholarship and publications. On one hand, it is a neat connection if it is true, simply to show how art was a familial pursuit. But I also wonder if this connection to Fragonard was also used to legitimize the contributions of a female artist in the male-dominated world of art.

1 Melissa Percival, Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure: Painting the Imagination  (Routledge, 2017), p. 19. Found online here: https://books.google.com/books?id=lCgxDwAAQBAJ&lpg=PP19&ots=Ao2piIFUCW&dq=fragonard%20posthumous%20reputation&pg=PP19#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Ibid.

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Crevelli’s Cucumbers, Christ, and Cotán

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I am reading the most wonderful book right now, The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint, which was just published last year. Thus far it has helped the post-holiday “January blues” to feel more manageable. This is a book that I wish I would have written myself. For the past few years, I have been less interested in the things that I studied in graduate school, and personally feel drawn to just looking at images of people reading books. I suppose these images serve as my escape, since I wish I had more quiet moments alone that I could spend reading for pleasure.

What caught my attention last night, though, was a tangential mention of a cucumber in the painting The Annunciation , with Saint  Emidius (1486, shown below) by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli.1 While books to appear in this painting (which ties into the purpose for its inclusion in my new book), I think the most striking thing is the cucumber that is prominently displayed in the foreground, balanced on a ledge and projecting toward the viewer.

Carlo Crivelli, "The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus," 1486 (National Gallery)

Carlo Crivelli, “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus,” 1486 (National Gallery)

 

The book says that the cucumber is a symbol of resurrection and redemption, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art also supports this connection with redemption. An audio interview with food writer Gillian Riley, embedded on the National Gallery webpage for the painting, more generally says that the cucumber is a symbol for Christ.

But why would cucumbers be seen in this way? This definitely is not a common symbol in Renaissance art, or even Christian art for that matter. Crivelli used the motif often in his art, so much that it has been called his “signature motif.” So far, I’ve only found some amusing and snarky speculation. And I’m afraid this post is just more speculation. I wonder if this conclusion has been determined by the context that Crivelli creates within his paintings: the cucumber appears over the head of the dead Christ in Crivelli’s The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene (shown below). In this painting, the angle of Christ’s limp head is has the same position and directional movement as the cucumber in the garland above, suggesting a visual and symbolic relationship between the two.

Crivelli, “The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene,” 1485 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Crivelli, “The Dead Christ With the Virgin, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene,” 1485 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius  and Madonna and Child ( shown at the top of the post), the cucumber is placed next to one or more apples. The apple is commonly depicted as the Forbidden Fruit from the Garden of Eden, and therefore serves as a symbol of sin. Perhaps this context helps us to know that the cucumber, then, symbolically is a reversal of the apple.

The cucumber and the apple also have different shapes too, and I think it is also in the realm of possibility to think of them in gendered terms. The round apple has been connected with female breasts in the past (even within the context of the Forbidden Fruit and Eve).2 Perhaps the cucumber was intended to serve as a symbol of Christ in a very physical way. Perhaps Leo Steinberg would have liked this idea? I think that Elizabeth Honig might agree that the phallic connotations would have been possible, she noted something similar in sixteenth-century art, although admittedly for a Northern context.3

One thing that I would like to determine, though, is whether the seventeenth-century painter Juan Sánchez Cotán might have somehow been influenced by Crivelli’s composition. Cotán’s still life that includes a cucumber has a very similar composition to Crivelli’s one in the Annunciation, with both of the cucumbers placed right in the foreground on a ledge. Both paintings also have a similar interest in illusionism with a strong shadow that falls to the right.

Carlo Crivelli, Detail of cucumber and apple from "The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus," 1486 (National Gallery)

Carlo Crivelli, Detail of cucumber and apple from “The Annunciation, with Saint Emidus,” 1486 (National Gallery)

Juan Sánchez Cotán, "Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm (San Diego Museum of Art)

Juan Sánchez Cotán, “Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber,” 1602, oil on canvas, 68.9 cm x 84.5 cm (San Diego Museum of Art)

Could it be that the Hapsburg Spanish presence in Italy somehow allowed for knowledge of Crivelli’s art to reach Cotán in Spain? Perhaps it is a stretch, but it would be interesting if a connection could be made! Any ideas? It is interesting to think about the cucumber and resurrection in this context too, since the other fruits and vegetables positioned in a way to suggest ascension and descension, depending on the direction the viewer’s eye moves horizontally across the picture plane.

Does anyone else have thoughts on cucumbers in art? When I first read about cucumbers as a symbol of resurrection, I jokingly wrote on Twitter that I hoped it was because the cucumber descends into a tomb of brine and re-emerges with a new life as a pickle. Alas, it doesn’t look like that is the case!

1 Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro,The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2018), p. 26

2 I’m specifically thinking of the Hildesheim doors, in which even holds an apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil over her chest, as if it is a breast. This is discussed in Adam S. Cohen and Anne Derbes, “Bernward and Eve at Hildesheim,” Gesta (vol. 40, no 1): 2001, 24.

3 Elizabeth Honig, Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp (Yale University Press, 1999), 43.

 

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Wiley and Morris at the St Louis Art Museum

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 11.28.59 AM

The radio silence on my blog has been deafening for me, but luckily I’ve been able to do some writing over the past few months. The William Morris Society in the United States contacted me a few months ago, after reading my 2016 post on Kehinde Wiley and William Morris. I expanded this initial post into a new one for their “News from Anywhere” webpage with updated information about a current Kehinde Wiley show at the Saint Louis Art Museum. And check out the gorgeous catalog cover for the exhibition!

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Book Review: “The Museum of Lost Art”

I recently finished reading Noah Charney’s new book The Museum of Lost Art. I have an academic crush on Charney’s work – he always manages to write about fascinating topics that I wish I had thought to write about myself. I’m glad that he is one step ahead of me, though, because he writes in a very engaging and approachable way. I wish that more art history texts were written like his.

The book is divided into sections, and within each section Charney considers different ways for how a work of art can be “lost.” For example, some works of art are destroyed intentionally or destroyed accidentally, while others are altered from their original conception. Each section is tied unified by beginning and ending with an anecdote that relates to the topic. I found this to be a bit confusing when I read the first section, but then I perceived what Charney was doing and the remaining sections made more sense.

Masaccio, "Holy Trinity," 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio, “Holy Trinity,” c. 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The thing that I liked most about The Museum of Lost Art was that I learned new things about famous works of art that I thought I already knew well. For example, I didn’t know that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity painting was covered up with a false wall in the latter part of the 16th century when Vasari was hired to alter the space.1 This canonical painting, which appears in most introductory art history textbooks as an example of mathematical (linear) perspective, was only rediscovered in 1860 when the church was remodeled.2

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

I also was also intrigued to learn that part of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors was “lost” at some point after it first was painted in 1533. The crucifix in the upper left corner originally was created to be partially obscured by the green curtain (which has been connected to the political tension of the day), but at one point the crucifix was completely painted out. Only in recent times, when conservators at the National Gallery cleaned this painting in 1891, was the crucifix discovered.This clear alteration before 1891 suggests that this political message (which references Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church through the formation of the Church of England) was offensive or problematic.

Holbein, "The Ambassadors," detail of crucifix

Holbein, “The Ambassadors,” detail of crucifix

The only section that I wish had a little more attention in this book is that of the “Looting in the Ancient World.” I think that the ancient Near East could have gotten more coverage here in the book, since many works of art were altered or lost due to the different warring groups who lived in this area. Probably my favorite article which discusses this topic is Marian Feldman’s “Knowledge as Cultural Biography: Lives of the Mesopotamian Monuments,” which includes a discussion of the Akkadian King portrait head. I realize that Charney was giving a brief overview of this topic in his book, but I do wish that the ancient Near East could have received a bit more discussion.

Otherwise, I really did enjoy this book and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in the biographies of works of art, art crime, looting, conservation, and restoration.

1 Noah Charney, The Museum of Lost Art (Phaidon: New York, 2018), 215.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 235.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.