A Vermeer painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has long been known to hide an image of a man, which was painted over by the artist. Now, new investigations have revealed that the hidden figure appears to be an artist, wielding a paintbrush in front of an easel. The man probably represents a self-portrait of Vermeer.
The discovery was made when A Maid Asleep was recently subjected to detailed non-invasive research by the conservator Dorothy Mahon and her Met colleagues. The latest technology, including X-ray fluorescence, made it possible to see much more than previously.
The investigation revealed not just the figure of a man, but an artist at work, with his hand reaching out in a pose suggesting he was holding a brush. When Vermeer painted over it, he seems to have refashioned the easel into a window frame. These fascinating findings were reported to a Vermeer symposium at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and they may have wider ramifications.
The Art Newspaper can now take the story further. We have identified a painting by Nicolaes Maes, a contemporary of Vermeer, which includes the small figure of an artist at his easel, reflected in a mirror hanging on the wall at the back of an interior scene. The Maes painting, The Naughty Drummer, which is in the Thyssen Collection, Madrid, shows the mirror just above the figure of the mother. The Naughty Drummer dates from around 1655 and A Maid Asleep from 1656-57, which would make the Vermeer a very slightly later painting.
Maes lived in Dordrecht, 30km from Vermeer’s Delft. Although there is no evidence that the two artists met, they may well have done so, and it is highly likely that Vermeer knew at least some of Maes’s paintings. If Vermeer was following the example of Maes, then the painted-over man, often thought to be a suitor or the master of the house, is indeed an artist at work, reflected in a mirror. Vermeer depicted mirrors in several of his paintings and the inventory compiled after his death recorded that he owned one.
Identifying the hidden man in A Maid Asleep as an artist may tell us much more about the meaning of the picture. The sleeping woman may not be a maid but a model exhausted by posing. If so, the painting may need to be retitled.
Mahon is continuing the research into the Vermeer with her collaborators, Silvia Centeno and Federico Carò.