A Painting Restored, A New Meaning Revealed

The power of a hidden detail in Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter

Christopher P Jones
6 min readDec 1, 2023

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Prior to restoration: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. 83 × 64.5 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany. Image source WikiArt

An affluent-looking woman stands before an open window and reads a letter.

The room around her is typical for Johannes Vermeer: a window, a chair, and a curtain that has been deliberately drawn aside, suggesting a private chamber into which we have been given surreptitious access.

It’s as if we’ve just pulled the sumptuous green curtain to the right, unnoticed.

Vermeer rarely painted a work that did not possess some deeper meaning, one that could be pieced together from the clues that silently pepper his compositions.

Detail of ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ (1657) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. 83 × 64.5 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany. Image source WikiArt

The first thing we come across is a table strewn with a woven rug and a bowl of fruit, both of which are in disarray. The rug is ruffled and the fruit has tumbled out of the bowl. From this hint, we can surmise that something is afoot.

Fruit in Dutch art often carries deeper implications. If the fruit is fresh then the suggestion is of fertility, youth and vitality. Fruit that is on the turn reminds the viewer of the brevity of life — with the message that our place in this world is fleeting.

In this painting, the toppled fruit bowl bears a narrative connotation: a disturbance has come upon the household.

Clearly the letter in the woman’s hands brings news of some sort, but what is it?

Further Evidence

Detail of ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ (1657) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. 83 × 64.5 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany. Image source WikiArt

The open window is interesting. In the glass, the woman’s face is reflected and partly distorted by the glass panels. We glimpse a side of her face that we cannot otherwise see.

The brilliance of this section of the painting is hard to overstate: Vermeer has used the reflections in the glass to convey the consternation in the young woman’s hidden side.

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