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2.6.6 Evidence of heat damage

The X-radiograph of Woman Reading a Letter (L17) shows the painting has suffered extensive damage along the bottom edge and is in only fair condition. During the 2010-2011 treatment of Woman Reading a Letter (L17), X-radiographs proved very useful in mapping a distinctive damage pattern consisting of tiny holes and blisters in the paint surface. The small circular losses in the paint layer filled with dirt and residues of discolored varnish, together with the raised tiny blisters, interfered with the overall legibility of the painting. Apart from a severely discolored varnish and a large, old repair at the bottom edge, this damage pattern was one of the main reasons the museum wished to treat the painting. A first step in establishing the probable cause of the degradation was to plot the distribution of the damages over the paint surface. By zooming in on the high resolution scans of the X-radiograph of Woman Reading a Letter (L17) it was possible to distinguish the micro features as dark grey or black spots, including those that were not readily visible on the paint surface (Figures 2.30a,b). Analysis of paint cross sections showed the paint layers were extensively deformed in the damaged areas, indicating exposure to raised temperatures. It also became obvious that the damage to the paint was not confined to the blisters and holes on the surface, but that the paint has an extremely porous structure (bubbles) throughout the paint layers, from the ground up through to the paint surface. It appeared that Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (L17) had been overheated, most likely during a past lining procedure, causing the paint to blister. Some of these small blisters erupted at the surface, leaving small circular losses in the paint surface.1

Figure 2.30a: Detail of the upper left wall in Woman Reading a Letter (L17) before the 2010-2011 treatment, showing small clustered damages related to heat damage.

Figure 2.30b: Detail of the X-radiograph of
Woman Reading a Letter (L17), showing damage in the upper left wall. Even though these areas are obscured by dirt or retouching, the damages are visible as small dark grey or black spots in the X-ray.


 I. Verslype, ‘The restoration of “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” by Johannes Vermeer’, The Rijksmuseum Bulletin 60 (2012), pp. 2-19, esp. pp. 5-7.

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