Paintings by Vrel at the Mauritshuis The Hague.
© Mauritshuis Den Haag
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Vrel: The forerunner of Vermeer

Feb. 21, 2023

Everyone knows Vermeer’s quiet interiors and that one Little Street, but few people know that artist Jacobus VrelJacobus Vrel was already producing scenes of this kind before Vermeer. In Vrel, Forerunner of Vermeer the Mauritshuis tells the story of this mysterious painter, showing 13 paintings from collections in the Netherlands and abroad to introduce visitors to Vrel and his work. The famous Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has loaned 2 extraordinary paintings, one of which is Woman at the Window (1654), the only dated work by Vrel. The Mauritshuis hosts Vrel, Forerunner of Vermeer until 29 May 2023.

Who was Jacobus Vrel?

We know very little about Jacobus Vrel. We do however know that he made around 50 paintings, most of them domestic or street scenes. Woman at the Window from Vienna and two other paintings by Vrel were once part of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria (1614-1662). A 1659 inventory is the only contemporary source of information on the painter. Research on the panels has revealed that Vrel was active as a painter long before 1654, much earlier than Delft masters Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. For a long time, several paintings by Vrel were actually attributed to Johannes Vermeer. The two artists depicted the same subjects, as well as sharing the same initials: JV. Full signatures by Jacobus Vrel were in some cases even turned into Vermeer signatures. Several paintings in the exhibition were sold in the 19th century as ‘Vermeers’, such asStreet 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.


Many of Vrel’s paintings feature one woman standing by a window in a room with a high ceiling, or seated beside a fireplace. She wears distinctive clothing: a dark dress and a white shawl. Her face is often hidden from view. Using these distinctive features, Vrel created his own world. The sometimes flawed perspective gives the pictures a naïve charm, prompting viewers to pay more attention to the details: the broken panes in a window, or a small white scrap of paper in the corner of a room, bearing the painter’s signature. Vrel made several copies of his own paintings, including the smallest details. Copying was a common practice among 17th-century Dutch painters, particularly portraitists. Why Vrel did this we do not know, though it is a simple way of increasing one’s production.

International study

Who was Jacobus Vrel? To discover more about him, 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, thanks to the support of the Mondrian Fund, the Mauritshuis. The three museums commissioned dendrochronological analysis (study of tree rings to date wood) of several paintings. It revealed that they are older than was thought. Vrel probably started painting the street scenes in 1635-1640; the earliest interiors date from before 1650. In order to determine his location in the Netherlands, the buildings in his paintings were analysed. Researchers Dirk Jan de Vries and Boudewijn Bakker, who studied the small streets and façades in the paintings, now assume that some of the streets are in Zwolle. Infrared reflectography* and X-ray fluorescence** revealed several ‘pentimenti’ (changes made by the artist himself). Vrel had changed or painted out figures, for example, including a child in a street scene from the Rijksmuseum collection. This was a way to perfect his compositions.


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’s signature is written on this scrap of paper. Research has shown that he used several versions of his signature, 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.

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