Jacobus Vrel. Enigmatic forerunner of Vermeer
Custody Foundation in Paris
At Jacobus Vrel, everything is mystery. His views of Dutch towns, with their muffled alleys between very tall houses, are unlike anything known. As for his interiors with mute characters, often from behind, in front of empty walls, they seem a long way from the anecdotes specific to genre painting in the 17th century. The collected climate of Vrel’s works even led critics to attribute them to Johannes Vermeer, who had the same initials as him.
The biography of this little master also remains an enigma. Although his name is attached to three works in 1659 in the inventory of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, governor of the Southern Netherlands, research carried out in the archives has not yielded any other clues to his background or career.
In an attempt to shed light, the Fondation Custodia in Paris has brought together 23 of the 44 known paintings by the painter and the only drawing by his hand. The culmination of a vast research project, launched in 2018 with the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and already presented in the spring at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. A rare opportunity to measure, in the face of the works of his contemporaries, the singularity of the man whom the art historian Gérard Régnier had baptized the “Vermeer of the poor” by hailing the “timeless delight” of his compositions.
Contrary to the satins, furs and pearls prized by the “Sphinx of Delft”, the characters of Jacobus Vrel appear modestly dressed. As for his palette, it is just as restrained, confined to a range of ochres, whites, blue greens and smoke blacks.
The only fantasy: discreet highlights with gold leaf, as on those candles that illuminate the nocturnal assembly of his Reformed Church during the service. In this same temple, the golden crescents would be an allusion to the slogan “Rather Turks than papists” of the Provinces united against the yoke of Catholic Spain.
Another peculiarity of the painter: his point of view “da sotto in sù”, from below, which makes us penetrate into most of his scenes, as if on tiptoe. See this woman from behind, waving to a child who appears, like an apparition, behind a dark window! Elsewhere, other pensive characters let our imagination wander. Like this little boy posted at a door and looking outside, dreaming of adventure, while his mother combs his sister…
This scene is similar to La Chasse aux poux by Gérard Ter Borch, on loan from the Mauritshuis. It could also be that the two artists rubbed shoulders. Gérard Ter Borch having been a friend of Vermeer, he could have made a link between him and Jacobus Vrel. But who would then have influenced the other? Recent analyzes of Vrel’s paintings allow a more precise dating (1), between 1635 and 1650, during Vermeer’s youth. Our mysterious artist would therefore have been its precursor. In a minor but deliciously intriguing key.