Oud Holland

Review of: 'Jacobus Vrel' (2021)

June 2023


Review of: Bernd Ebert, Cécile Tainturier and Quentin Buvelot (eds.), Jacobus Vrel: Searching for clues to an enigmatic artist, Munich [Hirmer] 2022

It seems eerily fitting that when Jacobus Vrel: Searching for clues to an enigmatic artist appeared, plans for its accompanying exhibition were abruptly halted amid a devastating global pandemic. The world for which those routine museological occurrences were envisioned had suddenly become as mysterious and uncertain as the world recorded by Jacobus Vrel (1617-1672) himself: grim and sparsely populated cityscapes, domestic chores undertaken in solitude and silence, sickbeds and averted faces. Indeed, the spartan melancholy of Vrel’s paintings seems to prompt recognition of the enormous social and economic impact of the plagues that periodically ravaged Northern Europe during the seventeenth century. Yet his paintings still manage to delight with reminders of the small, hopeful pleasures of daily life. And in our own time, we have emerged from the shadows of a pandemic with our own hopeful pleasures: plans for the long-awaited exhibition have been revived, and thanks to this illuminating publication, we can recognize Jacobus Vrel as an artist more significant – if no less enigmatic – than was once thought.1

The catalogue (and exhibition) devoted to this fascinating but still little-known artist are the result of a multi-year investigation led by scholars at three institutions: Quentin Buvelot (Mauritshuis, The Hague), Bernd Ebert (Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich) and Cécile Tainturier (Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris). Their research was undertaken in close cooperation with painting conservators and dendrochronologists, as well as specialists in architectural history, building history, the history of costume, handicrafts, folklore and religion. The resulting publication is an exemplary model for the minute examination of an artist’s life and work; an endeavour made feasible by the limited size of Vrel’s known oeuvre (49 paintings and one drawing), and more intriguing by the ample capacity for speculation on an artist about whom almost nothing is known. The book consists of nine essays on different aspects of Vrel’s life and work, complemented by full-page colour illustrations and a catalogue raisonné of all 50 works currently attributed to him. Add sth about the design and the quality of the images. The authors’ judicious selection includes a handful of recent (re)discoveries (cats. 15, 34) and reattributions (cat. 48).

In keeping with its goal of offering a definitive catalogue of the artist’s work, the book cedes greater weight to the factual and presents a wealth of information (or conversely, exhaustive evidence of an absence of information) on the artist. Cécile Tainturier’s lucid and concise historiographic essay (‘In search of Jacobus Vrel: The reception of the artist and his work from the seventeenth century to the present day’) outlines the critical appraisal of Jacobus Vrel, from its initial slow start as a byproduct of the mid-nineteenth century ‘rediscovery’ of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) by the critic Thoré-Burger (of the 72 paintings included in that writer’s landmark 1866 catalogue raisonné of Vermeer’s work, seven were by Vrel). Only gradually did Vrel emerge as a distinct artistic personality, despite the presence of signatures or monograms on roughly two-thirds of the paintings currently attributed to him. As the scope of his oeuvre has become more defined, recent scholarship has placed greater emphasis on decoding the meditative, and at times melancholic, imagery of this ‘poor man’s Vermeer’.

Cover of: Jacbous Vrel. Searching for clues to an enigmatic artist

Middle left: Jacbous Vrel, View of a town, c. 1654-1662, oil on panel, 36 x27.5 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. SK-A-1592

Middle right; Jacobus Vrel, Young woman in an interior, oil on panel, 55.7 x 41.3 cm., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., inv. 2012.106.1

Right: fig. 1 Jacobus Vrel, A seated woman looking at a child through a window, oil on panel, 45.7 x 39.2 cm., Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection, Paris, inv. 174

Despite nearly 150 years of scholarly inquiry, the 49 paintings and one drawing catalogued in this volume constitute about the only concrete evidence of the elusive Jacobus Vrel. The only secure archival record of the artist remains the 1659 inventory of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Hapsburg (1614-1662), governor of the Southern Netherlands between 1647 and 1656, which lists two paintings by ‘Jacob Frell’ and one by ‘Jakob Fröll’ (cats. 21, 38, 48). The diligent archival research of Piet Bakker for this project (‘Who was Jacobus Vrel?’) found no trace of the artist or his work in any of the main artistic centres of Holland (Amsterdam, Delft, Dordrecht, Leiden, Rotterdam, The Hague) or in other Netherlandish provinces. A number of factors – the perceived influence of Gerard ter Borch the Younger on Vrel’s paintings, the similarity of his architectural motifs to urban architecture in cities in the eastern United Provinces, and the presence of hooded monks in several of his paintings – led project researchers to focus on locating the artist in the cities of Zwolle and Deventer in the eastern province of Overijssel. Once again, no documentary evidence was found.

Nonetheless, the essay by Dirk Jan de Vries and Boudewijn Bakker (‘Jacobus Vrel in Zwolle’) explores this possibility in depth, examining the architecture of Vrel’s urban views (19 paintings and one drawing) as it compares with specific structures, architectural motifs and topographical features found in the eastern city of Zwolle. While their research is at times convincing, the exclusive focus on one urban centre limits our understanding of the artist. Indeed, in his essay, Piet Bakker cites several other locations where Vrel might plausibly have lived and worked, including Deventer, Nijmegen and the German city of Burgsteinfurt in Nord-Rhein Westphalia, where two of Vrel’s paintings are housed in the ancestral collection of the Fürsten zu Bentheim und Steinfurt (cats. 15, 47). Closest to the mark, perhaps, is De Vries and Bakker’s description of Vrel’s views as, “summarising, idealizing or generalizing portraits of the then already old neighborhoods of Zwolle and other formerly Hanseatic neighbourhoods to the east of the River IJssel”.2 This observation opens the way to consideration of other locales, perhaps also in Overijssel or neighbouring areas, although any search to precisely situate Vrel’s views will be thwarted by an intentional vagueness that prioritises mood and memory over topographic accuracy. As others have noted, Vrel’s sparsely-populated streets, squeezed by vertiginous structures with the occasional notice of a house for rent, project the morose anonymity of an unspectacular city quarter ripe for urban renewal.

Bernd Ebert’s essay (‘Narrow alleyways, austere rooms and contemplative silence’) takes a broader look at the material details of Vrel’s compositions, mining the specifics of the artist’s street views and domestic interiors for clues to his origins, influences, and iconographic intent. It’s a fascinating and well-researched cornucopia of detail that underscores Vrel’s innovations (particularly in his street scenes), which also addresses his curious relation to the work of his contemporaries. In contrast to the conclusions of De Vries and Bakker, Ebert states that Vrel’s street scenes ‘cannot be linked with certainty to any town or region’; they are collages of fragments, ‘quiet, anonymous and unspectacular’, which deliberately avoid resemblance to any specific place. As we know from the work of Johannes Vermeer (to cite one contemporary example), eliminating specifics of time and place makes it easier for the viewer to connect with that painted world. As for Vrel’s interiors, it is difficult to find precedent or parallel for their muted colors, spartan furnishings, soaring ceilings and unadorned walls. These are not the gleaming, aspirational spaces inhabited by society’s elite, as imagined by painters of ‘high-life’ genre (eg. Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667), Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681) and others); nor are they the picturesque hovels that housed the rural poor, as portrayed in paintings by Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685) and his ilk. Ebert perceptively notes that Vrel depicted the unremarkable lives of ‘the rest of us’, finding in those mundane routines a simple, poignant beauty. 

Karin Leonhard’s thought-provoking chapter (‘Rooms without keys: Jacobus Vrel and modernity’) is the only purely iconographic study included within the volume. While it might have been desirable to include more such studies on an artist whose very imagery seems to beg interpretive musings, the catalogue also underscores the difficulty of interpreting work resists the accepted interpretational patterns of Dutch painting. Without the anchor of iconographic tradition (which Vrel seems to deliberately eschew), reading Vrel’s paintings becomes dependent on the viewer’s contemporary gaze, opening the way to an examination of the paintings’ emotional and psychological impact. Leonhard eloquently explores, among other topics, the profundity of the mundane and the significance of space and emptiness in Vrel’s paintings and their resonance with modern viewers, drawing parallels with the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916), painted more than two centuries later.

A particular strength of the catalogue is the quantity of information devoted to technical aspects of the artist’s work. Although just one of Vrel’s paintings is dated (Woman leaning out of an open window, 1654; cat. 21), based on dendrochronological data assembled by Peter Klein from his examination of 31 panels by the artist (‘The dendrochronological analysis of panel paintings by Jacobus Vrel’), a basic sequence of production – if not an exact chronology – can be proposed. The street scenes appear to represent the artist’s earliest works (possibly as early as the 1640s), with the bulk of his interior scenes painted slightly later, in the 1650s and 1660s. Even these approximate dates indicate that Vrel was an innovator in the depiction of urban street scenes, and a precursor of De Hooch and Vermeer in the field of domestic genre. Unfortunately, due to COVID-related restrictions, it was not possible to conduct an analysis of the one dated panel in Vienna, which might have provided an indication of the seasoning period for the wood – and by extension, a better idea of date ranges for the remainder of Vrel’s oeuvre. The imaging research of Jens Wagner and Heike Stege (‘The examination of selected panels by Jacobus Vrel using imaging methods’), enhanced by data shared by researchers at other institutions, provides some fascinating details about Vrel’s materials and working methods. For example, in two instances, he composed his painting on a reused panel – one (cat. 40), a fragment of a much older portrait of a woman; the other (cat. 10), is what appears to be an architectural scene of a more recent date. Although the practice of reusing panels is not uncommon in the seventeenth century, it is most often found in works that were either experimental or made for the artist’s personal use. In Vrel’s case, it may also have been a way of economising, as discarded old paintings could be less costly than a new, professionally prepared panel. One particularly noteworthy feature of the paintings is Vrel’s occasional use of gold leaf applied to the paint surface to accentuate details of small metallic objects (cats. 3, 15, 47). Of the scant handful of seventeenth-century artists who used gold leaf in this manner, works by Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) (as noted by the authors) seem the closest analogue, although it is also conceivable that Vrel might have been inspired locally by earlier religious paintings that evidenced a traditional use of applied gold leaf.

Quentin Buvelot’s essay on autograph replicas in Vrel’s work (‘Prototypes and replicas in the work of Vrel and his contemporaries’) forms part of the author’s larger project on the subject of copies and replicas in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. Buvelot presents three cases of such repetition among Vrel’s paintings – two street scenes (cats. 10 and 11; and cats. 12 and 13) and an interior (cats. 26–29). Painters (or their studio assistants) produced replicas of popular compositions for a variety of reasons, but the existence of at least three instances in the small oeuvre of an artist whose work did not appear to have wide-reaching fame seems remarkable indeed. I would venture that this repetition does not indicate a deficiency of creativity on the part of the artist, but perhaps (as Buvelot suggests) a pragmatic approach to fulfilling the demands of a local clientele with limited means and a cautious, risk-averse approach to new subject matter.

Jacobus Vrel: Searching for clues to an enigmatic artist is a publication destined to be admired and consulted for many years to come. The authors and project leaders are to be commended for bringing this catalogue to completion, despite the restrictions imposed by the recent pandemic, which sometimes prevented them from securing key bits of information (for example, the dendrochronological examination of the Vienna painting). By accident or design, the organisation of the content is comfortably independent of an actual physical exhibition – although now having the opportunity to view an assemblage of Vrel’s paintings, in the first exhibition devoted exclusively to him, will be a pure delight. Much like the paintings of Vrel himself, this catalogue is a compelling achievement that will stimulate further research and exploration. 

Marjorie E. Wieseman
Curator and Head of the Department of Northern European Paintings
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


1 'Vrel: forerunner of Vermeer', was on view at the Mauritshuis, The Hague (16 February–29 May 2023) and is now on view at the Fondation Custodia, Paris (17 June–17 September 2023). The exhibition will unfortunately no longer travel to the third originally-planned venue, the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich. 

2 B. Ebert, C. Tainturier and Q. Buvelot (eds.), Jacobus Vrel: Searching for clues to an enigmatic artist, Munich 2022, p. 85.

Marjorie E. Wieseman, ‘Review of: Jacobus Vrel: Searching for clues to an enigmatic artist’, Oud Holland Reviews, June 2022.