Jacobus Vrel. Enigmatic Forerunner of Vermeer

from 17 June to 17 September 2023

Opening hours: every day except Monday, from 12 to 6 pm.

This monographic exhibition, the first to be devoted exclusively to the painter, brings together major works kept in the great museums of Amsterdam, Brussels, Detroit, Munich, Vienna, etc., as well as from prestigious private collections. On show as well, of course, is one of the best-known – and most surprising – genre scenes to be found in the Fondation Custodia: A Seated Woman Looking at a Child through a Window.

Jacobus Vrel, {Interior with a Woman Combing a Girl's Hair, and a Boy at a Dutch Door}
Jacobus Vrel, Interior with a Woman Combing a Girl’s Hair, and a Boy at a Dutch Door
Oil on panel. – 55.9 × 40.6 cm
Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts
Gift of M. Knoedler & Co., 1928, inv. 28.42

At first glance, nothing seems to link Jacobus Vrel to the famous Johannes Vermeer except their initials ‘JV’. Nevertheless, many of their paintings share the same contemplative calm, the central role played by the female figures and, very often, a certain air of mystery. For these reasons, many works by Jacobus Vrel were for a long time attributed to Vermeer. Unfamiliar to the wider public, they have been intriguing and fascinating art historians for more than a century. Who then was this enigmatic seventeenth-century painter?

It was in an attempt to solve the mystery of Jacobus Vrel that an international research project was set up in 2018. Close examination of the archives unfortunately produced no information on the painter’s birthplace, or where he died, nor on his activity.

On the other hand, dendrochronological analysis undertaken for the project (i.e. the dating of the wooden panels on which the paintings are executed) established that Vrel painted his first cityscapes in about 1635 and his interiors in about 1650. This means that he was not a follower of Vermeer, as had long been surmised, but a forerunner.

Jacobus Vrel, {Street Scene with a Bakery by the Town Wall}
Jacobus Vrel, Street Scene with a Bakery by the Town Wall
Oil on panel. – 50 × 38.5 cm
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, inv. 228

In order further to highlight the originality of the works of Jacobus Vrel, the Fondation Custodia is devoting three galleries in the exhibition to Dutch contemporaries of the painter who dealt with similar subjects: town views and genre scenes.

Vrel’s street views appear to offer us a glimpse of urban life in seventeenth-century Holland, but they arrest our attention because of their unclassifiable architecture. Vrel is the first painter of the Golden Age to have chosen as his subject views of streets and buildings with no historical or important event in progress. This type of painting was to experience far-reaching developments in the second half of the seventeenth century in the hands of artists such as Jan van der Heyden (1637–1712) or Jan Abrahamsz. Beerstraaten (1622–1666).

Jacobus Vrel, {An Old Woman Reading, with a Boy behind the Window}
Jacobus Vrel, An Old Woman Reading, with a Boy behind the Window
Oil on panel. – 54.5 × 40.7 cm
The Orsay Collection

With regard to Vrel’s interiors, they are also difficult to fit into the context of Dutch art. These empty rooms – empty apart from the scrap of paper on the floor bearing his signature, bounded by equally empty walls and a window, behind which the pale face of a child looms from the darkness, have no equivalent in the art of his century.

Pieter Janssens, called Elinga (1623 – 1682), {Reading Woman}, c. 1665-70
Pieter Janssens, called Elinga (1623 – 1682), Reading Woman, c. 1665-70
Oil on canvas. – 75.5 × 63.5 cm
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, inv. 284

On the other hand, in his interiors, Vrel has recourse to a repertoire of subjects already well established in Dutch art. His figures of women cooking, sewing, ministering to the sick or minding children have many parallels. From the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, the exhibition presents the magnificent painting by Pieter Janssens, known as Elinga (1623–1682) whose interiors populated with female figures invite the same reverie as those of Vrel.

The graphic arts do not lag behind in the eulogy of daily life offered to posterity by seventeenth-century Dutch artists. On view for example is the drawing from the Rijksmuseum in which a woman seen from behind leans out of a Dutch door, a subject very dear to Vrel. This drawing was attributed to Rembrandt for many years but is nowadays ascribed to Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693), one of the master’s brilliant students.

Nicolaes Maes (1634 – 1693) (attributed to), {Woman Leaning Against a Door}
Nicolaes Maes (1634 – 1693) (attributed to), Woman Leaning Against a Door
Pen and brown ink, brown, grey and yellow wash, white gouache. – 154 × 149 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Rijksprentenkabinet, inv. RP-T-1889-A-2043

The exhibition thus takes visitors on a journey through the artistic production of the Dutch Golden Age, at the heart of which Jacobus Vrel both fits in and stands out.

The exhibition’s first venue in the Mauritshuis in The Hague took place from 16 February to 29 May 2023.



The monograph published in May 2021 is the fruit of the collaboration between the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, the Fondation Custodia and the Mauritshuis. In the many essays and in the catalogue raisonné of the work of Jacobus Vrel, all the results of the research carried out by, and under the leadership of Quentin Buvelot, curator at the Mauritshuis (The Hague), Bernd Ebert, Head of German and Dutch Baroque painting at the Alte Pinakothek (Munich) and Cécile Tainturier, curator at the Fondation Custodia (Paris) are presented.

Jacobus Vrel. Looking for Clues of an Enigmatic Painter
Munich, Hirmer Publishers, 2021
256 pp, 224 colour illustrations, 26,5 × 21,5 cm, hardback, in English
ISBN 978 3 7774 3587 9
39,90 €
[Sold out]

Practical Information


Fondation Custodia / Collection Frits Lugt
121, rue de Lille - 75007 Paris
Tel: +33 (0)1 47 05 75 19

Access by public transport

Metro: Assemblée Nationale (line 12) or Invalides (lines 8 and 13)
RER C: Invalides or Musée d’Orsay
Bus: lines 63, 73, 83, 84, 94, Assemblée Nationale
Vélib’: station opposite (n° 7009)

Opening hours

Every day except Monday, from 12 to 6 pm

Admission charges

10 € (full) / 7 € (reduced)
The reduced rate is available to seniors (over 60), unemployed people, Amis du Louvre, groups of at least 10 people

Free admission: students, press card, ICOM card, disabled person’s card, members of Vereniging Rembrandt

No online reservations

Possibility to visit the exhibition Jacobus Vrel. Enigmatic Forerunner of Vermeer with a conference guide on the following dates (in French): Saturday 24 June 2023 at 12.30 pm, Tuesday 4 July at 12.30 pm, Thursday 13 July at 12.30 pm, Wednesday 6 September at 12.30 pm.
Admission: price of the exhibition ticket
Reservation required: visites@fondationcustodia.fr