Vrel, Forerunner of Vermeer

Jacobus Vrel, Vrouw op een stoel, met een kind achter het raam, na 1656. Parijs, Fondation Custodia, Collectie Frits Lugt

16 February – 29 May 2023

Almost everyone knows Johannes Vermeer’s quiet interiors and that little street he painted, but few people know that artist Jacobus Vrel (active c. 1640-1660) was already producing scenes of this kind before the paint was dry on Vermeer’s first masterpiece. The Mauritshuis shares the story of this mysterious painter in Vrel – Forerunner of Vermeer.

The exhibition will tell the story of how Vrel was rediscovered in the 19th and early 20th century using a selection of his finest works. Two extraordionary paintings from the famous Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna will be coming to The Hague. One is Woman at the Window (1654), the only dated work by Vrel.

This exhibition can also be visited in Paris, Fondation Custodia,
17 June 2023 – 17 September 2023.

Image: Jacobus Vrel, A Seated Woman Looking at a Child through a Window. Paris, Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection.

Forerunner of Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer and Jacobus Vrel depicted the same subjects, as well as sharing the same initials: JV. For a long time, some paintings by Vrel were actually attributed to Johannes Vermeer. There have even been cases of full signatures by Jacobus Vrel being turned into forged Vermeer signatures. Two works in the exhibition – Street Scene with a Bakery by the Town Wall, Probably Waterstraat in Zwolle from Hamburger Kunsthalle and Old Woman Reading, with a Boy behind the Window, now part of a private collection – were purchased in 1888 as ‘Vermeers’.

Jacobus Vrel, Vrouw op een stoel, met een kind achter het raam, na 1656. Parijs, Fondation Custodia, Collectie Frits Lugt
Jacobus Vrel, A Seated Woman Looking at a Child through a Window. Paris, Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection.

Signatures and trademark

One distinctive feature of Vrel’s work is the way he signed his paintings. He had what might be regarded as his own ‘trademark’, in the form of a scrap of white paper on the ground, which appears in several paintings. Vrel would write his signature on this scrap of paper. Research has shown that he used several versions of his name, including ‘J V’, ‘J Vrel’, ‘Jacobus Vreelle’ and ‘Jaco / büs / frell’, the German spelling of his given name suggesting he may have lived closed to the German border at some time.

Handtekeningenvrel (1)
Variations of Jacobus Vrel's signature

International study

To discover more about this mysterious painter, an international research project was set up involving three museums: the Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich; Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection in Paris; and the Mauritshuis.

The three museums commissioned dendrochronological analysis (study of tree rings to date wood) of several paintings. The findings of the study suggest that Vrel was painting well before 1654 – earlier than Delft masters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch.

Infraroodreflectografie uitgevoerd  met behulp van de Vasari-scanner, onderzoek van: Jacobus Vrel, Straatje met een bakkerij bij een stadsmuur, vermoedelijk de Waterstraat in  Zwolle, na 1646.
Infrared reflectography performed using the Vasari scanner, examination of: Jacobus Vrel, Street with a bakery near a city wall, presumably the Waterstraat in Zwolle, after 1646