The mystery of JACOBUS VREL Forerunner of Vermeer at Mauritshuis in The Hague

Jacob Vrel Woman Waving at a Child Behind a Window c.1654 Oil on panel 45,7 x 39,2 cms

To complement the major Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum there are two related exhibitions, one at the Prinsenhof in Delft plus this one in The Hague. The show at the Mauritshuis is all about Jacobus Vrel (?-?), a relatively unknown painter who painted similar street scenes and ladies in domestic interiors as Vermeer.

Scholars always complain about how little is known about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), but compared to Vrel it is quite a lot. This exhibition is the result of intensive research trying to find more information on Vrel but not much was found, not even a date nor place of birth or death. That is why there are just question marks between brackets behind his name!

Thanks to one signed and dated work Woman Leaning out of an Open Window from 1654 we can at least place Vrel in the second and third quarter of the 17th century.

Apart from the signature and date, this painting was part of the famous collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria. A written inventory dating from 1659 of this collection is the only written evidence of a Vrel in a collection. Between 1647 and 1656 the Archduke was governor of the Southern Netherlands and probably came across Vrel’s work then. This suggests that Vrel must have been a known and appreciated artist, being present in such an important collection. But, curiously enough, no other inventory lists exist with a reference to Vrel. So nobody else seemed to own one . . .

Since Vrel painted on panels, dendrochronological research had also given useful information about estimating the age of his works (about 50 in total). By examining the growth rings of the wood it is proven that Vrel’s street scenes were probably created from 1635-1640 onwards; his earliest interiors date from before 1650.

With this little information we can at least say for sure he was a forerunner of Vermeer and not a follower. The question then arises; did Vermeer see the work of Vrel? We simply don’t know.

The street scenes of Vrel seem to be painted in Zwolle, looking at the cobbled streets and comparing them with old photographs of this city. When we built on this assumption there is a possibility that through Gerard Ter Borgh, whom we know was doing something with Vermeer thanks to a contract they both signed, Vrel’s work could have been introduced to Vermeer thanks to Ter Borgh. These are just hypotheses and without any evidence, that is all there is.

For now we just have to admire the thirteen paintings which museums from all over the world have so generously loaned to the Mauritshuis for this first ever monographic exhibition of Jacobus Vrel.   Wendy Fossen   14th February 2023

Click here for Michael Hasted’s review of Vermeer’s Delft    

Click here for Wendy Fossen’s review of Vermeer at Rijksmuseum