An exhibition, planned for 2023, and a book published this month will reveal the story of Jacobus Vrel, an enigmatic artist whose work has fascinating parallels with that of his contemporary Vermeer. Until recently it was usually assumed that Vrel was a follower of the famed painter of Delft. But new research reveals that Vermeer worked some years later, which means that Vrel was in fact the Golden Age pioneer who depicted street scenes and interiors.
This raises the intriguing question of whether Vermeer knew the work of Vrel—and if it provided inspiration.
The exhibition Jacobus Vrel: Searching for Clues to an Enigmatic Artist, was due to open at Munich’s Alte Pinakothek last year, but was delayed because of the pandemic. It is now rescheduled for 2023 at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Fondation Custodia in Paris.
Although the Munich museum’s curator, Bernd Ebert, initiated the European project, the presentation at the Alte Pinakothek has now been cancelled. This is because of financial and scheduling problems resulting from Covid-19. A consolation prize for Munich will be the unveiling of an early Vrel acquisition, Street Scene with People Conversing (after 1633), which is due to go on public display on 12 October.
Martine Gosselink, Ger Luijten and Bernhard Maaz, the directors of the three museums, admit that “it took courage to organise an exhibition on a 17th-century Dutch artist whose identity largely remains a mystery”. Although we have Vrel’s signed paintings, otherwise absolutely nothing more is known about him.
The most revealing result of recent research is dating through dendrochronological (tree-ring) analysis of Vrel’s oak panels. Two thirds of his paintings were analysed by the panel specialist Peter Klein. His results show that Vrel began work in the 1630s—and continued until the 1660s. Vermeer’s paintings date from the mid-1650s until the mid-1670s.
Quentin Buvelot, the senior curator at the Mauritshuis, concludes: “We have now established that many of Vrel’s works were done before Vermeer started. It is certainly conceivable that Vermeer saw Vrel’s street scenes and interiors—and, if so, this may well have influenced his own paintings. Of course, Vermeer developed these genres to entirely new levels.”
Forty-nine paintings by Vrel have been identified and catalogued (more than Vermeer’s 35), but in 350 years he has never been celebrated with a monographic exhibition. The Mauritshuis plans to show at least a dozen of his paintings and there will be around 20 at the Fondation Custodia.
For 150 years art historians have been trying to track down the story of Vrel. Along with his signed paintings, he is only mentioned in a single contemporaneous document: the 1659 collection inventory of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, which lists three works. Just one of Vrel’s paintings is dated, Woman Leaning out of an Open Window (at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) of 1654.
The town where Vrel lived and worked remains unknown, despite extensive archival searches. Art historians have speculated that it was somewhere in the present-day Netherlands or northern Belgium, but it could also have been in northern Germany, possibly as far away as the Baltic. One possible town is Zwolle, between Amsterdam and the German border, because some of its buildings are similar to those in his paintings. However, a recent systematic examination of street scenes, architecture and costume in his paintings yielded inconclusive results.
Vrel’s forte is depicting everyday life in 17th-century Northern European towns, but with a mysterious character. His street views and interiors, inhabited by enigmatic people, have a silent quality, and seem almost timeless. This gives them a modern feel and he is sometimes compared with the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi, who worked in around 1900.
As the Vrel book concludes: “Like a phantom, Vrel seems to elude us. Perhaps it is precisely this that makes for the charm of his works. They are begging to be discovered and unravelled.”
Jacobus Vrel: Searching for Clues to an Enigmatic Artist is scheduled to be at the Mauritshuis, The Hague (16 February 2023-29 May 2023) and the Fondation Custodia, Paris (17 June 2023-17 September 2023). The accompanying book, which includes a catalogue raisonné, was published this month, in English, by Hirmer.