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A street scene with figures

A street scene with figures
oil on panel
14 3⁄8 x 11 in. (36.4 x 27.9 cm.)
Private collection, Germany, by 1949.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, New York, 31 May 1979, lot 117, where sold after the sale.
Joost R. Ritman (b. 1941), Amsterdam; Sotheby's, London, 5 July 1995, lot 6, where acquired by the following,
Art Dealer, The Netherlands.
Private collection, The Netherlands, by January 1996.
E. Plietzsch, 'Jacobus Vrel und Esaias Boursse', Zeitschrift für Kunst, III, 1949, pp. 252-3, fig. 134.
E. Mai, ed., Das Kabinett des Sammlers: Gemälde vom XV. bis XVIII Jahrhundert, Cologne, 1993, p. 268.
D. Lokin, 'Views in and of Delft, 1650-1675', Delft Masters: Vermeer's Contemporaries. Illusionism Through the Conquest of Light and Space, exhibition catalogue, Delft, 1996, pp. 103-4, fig. 86.
E. Mai, 'Wer war Jacobus Vrel? Hypothesen zum sogenannten "Vermeer der Armen"', Kölner Museums-Bulletin, IV, 2003, p. 55, under note 31, and p. 66, fig. 31.
B. Ebert, C. Tainturier and Q. Buvelot, eds., Jacobus Vrel: Searching for Clues to an Enigmatic Artist, Munich and The Hague, 2021, pp. 80-1, 99, 110, under notes 38 and 40, 133, 165 and pp. 211-2, no. 13, illustrated.
The Hague, Mauritshuis and Paris, Fondation Custodia, Vrel: Forerunner of Vermeer, 16 February-17 September 2023, no. 13.

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Lot Essay

Aside from the 1659 inventory of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria’s collection, which includes reference to three paintings by Jacobus Vrel, the signatures that appear on many of his paintings are the only contemporary documents of his otherwise enigmatic existence. The rarity of his works – only about fifty paintings by him are known today – and his seemingly naïve style has caused some to suggest that he may have been an amateur. The contemplative calm and light effects evident in Vrel’s domestic interiors have generally been seen in the context of Delft artists like Johannes Vermeer (whose initials Vrel shared and to whom several of his paintings were previously attributed) and Pieter de Hooch. On account of paintings like Vrel’s Woman at a window (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), which is dated 1654, Vrel’s interior scenes anticipate rather than follow those by his more famous contemporaries. His street scenes, by contrast, suggest connections with Haarlem, Friesland, Flanders and the lower Rhineland. Indeed, on several occasions he signed using ‘Frell’, a German spelling of his surname that suggests he may have lived close to the German border for part of his career.

Vrel’s idiosyncratic approach to his subject matter is met by an equally unconventional technique. He rejected the traditional Dutch approach of describing surfaces in great detail in favour of an unpretentious manner that eschewed glazes, perspective and primed canvases. The figures and buildings in his paintings typically defy the rules of optics by casting no shadows. This studied simplicity imbues his paintings with a sense of sincerity and compassion that befits his humble subjects.

Just as Vrel’s domestic interiors predated those by Vermeer and de Hooch, so, too, do his street scenes look forward toward works like Vermeer’s Little Street (fig. 1; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), datable to circa 1658. Vrel probably began to undertake such scenes in the second half of the 1630s and they became a stock-in-trade in ensuing decades. The present painting is known in an earlier, monogrammed version, today in the collection of Rose-Marie and Eijk de Mol van Otterloo (op. cit., Jacobus Vrel, 2021, no. 12). Recent dendrochronological research suggests the Van Otterloo panel was ready to be painted by around 1658 (see ibid., p. 99). Though ostensibly the same composition, minute differences can be seen between the two paintings, among them the inclusion of a woman viewed through a window at lower right in the present painting. This charming detail is missing in the Van Otterloo panel but features in other works by Vrel, including the interiors in The Orsay Collection, the Fondation Custodia, Paris, and a private collection (see ibid., nos. 35-37).

The success of the Van Otterloo composition is indicated by the survival of both this autograph repetition and later copies. Dendrochronological examination suggests the present painting likely dates to around 1672, a point which suggests Vrel was active later than has traditionally been assumed (see loc. cit.). A later painted copy depicting a wider view of the houses at the end of the street, last sold Sotheby’s, New York, 14 January 1994, lot 104, is also known, as is an early nineteenth-century watercolour copy given to Albertus Brondgeest, which appeared at Karl & Faber, Munich, 29 November 1962, lot 335.

Though Vrel’s street scenes were long thought to be imaginary, Dirk Jan de Vries and Boudewijn Bakker have recently proposed that the view in this painting is instead an identifiable place around Waterstraat in Zwolle (ibid., pp. 80-81). Lining a meticulously rendered cobblestone street is a row of modest brick houses built along a town wall with covered walkway, which the scholars have identified as Zwolle’s northern wall. Three solitary figures go about their daily activities. A crenellated tower with narrow embrasures in its two uppermost sections is prominent in the painting’s central background and may be identified as the Wijndragerstoren, directly to the east of the city’s Vispoort gate. Today, the tower has a tiled roof, which was only added in the eighteenth century. Further to the right, just visible between the sapling and the brick building viewed from the side at far right, there is a structure with a spout gable. Based on the structure’s position in the painting, it may well correspond with the corner façade of the library of the Dominican Broerenklooster. Similarly, the street corner in the right foreground is comparable to that around the extant structure at Vispoortenplas 8-10, whose gable also faces Waterstraat.

At least two additional paintings appear to depict locations in Zwolle similar to that seen in the present work and the one in the Van Otterloo Collection, the first in the Hamburg Kunsthalle (inv. no. HK-228) and a second in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford (inv. no. 1937.489). Vrel must have developed such compositions through on-the-spot drawings, of which only one surviving example is known (fig. 2). Intriguingly, the drawing includes a building with open shutters and pothuis, or annex, very much like that which appears in the present painting.

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