The enigmatic Vrel did not share his fellow Dutch painters’ love of surface and incidental detail. His street scenes are unusual in their anonymity, showing unremarkable back streets and ordinary people. Many of these share the present pictures’ view down a narrow street with tall and narrow buildings on either side. The quality of light which washes over each scene here is particularly noteworthy and reminiscent of Vrel’s exalted contemporary Johannes Vermeer. Specifically, this and the following lot recall Vermeer’s The Little Street (fig.1, Rijksmusuem, Amsterdam) in their featuring of similar brick walls and clean, uniform lighting which highlights each specific detail on the whitewashed surfaces. The compositions of these two works are particularly quiet in their construction. Though such harmoniously simple views are now considered Vrel’s hallmark, there are indeed examples which feature recognizable commercial shops, such as that which sold most recently at Sotheby’s, London, 4 July 2018, lot 36, for $1,100,000. The architectural elements, as a whole, which unite Vrel’s output of street scenes, are however very consistent. Works by the artist which include variations on buildings found throughout his corpus, such as those in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson collection1 and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles,2 suggest that they may all have been constructed in the artist’s imagination. The latter example shares with the present work similar low hanging tiled awnings. The street in the Philadelphia picture even shows a large church at its end, but this has not been identified. One possible clue is afforded by the fact that two of his street scenes, those in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford,3 and that formerly in the McIlhenny collection in Philadelphia,4show pairs of hooded Capuchin monks. This detail suggests that those scenes originated outside the United Provinces, where the monastic orders had been abolished. This might suggest that Vrel may therefore have lived in a small town close to the border with either the lower Rhineland or the Catholic southern Netherlands. The latter possibility is supported the fact that his Interior with a woman at a window of 1654, in Vienna,5 was in the collection of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm as early as 1659, which shows that Vrel’s unique qualities were evidently appreciated by collectors at a very early date.
Dendrorchronological analysis of both works conducted by Dr. Peter Klein confirms that each is executed on single planks of Baltic oak. Street Scene with Couple in Conversation reveals an an earliest date of use of 1643, with a more plausible date of use from 1649 onwards. Street Scene with Two Figures Walking Away reveals an earliest date of use of 1652, with a more plausible date of use from 1658 onwards.
Both works by Vrel in this catalogue have been requested for the forthcoming monographic exhibition on the artist, scheduled for 2019 - 2020, organized by the Alte Pinakothek (Munich), the Fondation Custodia (Paris) and the Mauritshuis (The Hague).
1. Sutton 2002, p. 272, reproduced fig. 59a.
2. D. Lokin, 'Views in and of Delft, 1650–1675', in Delft Masters, Vermeer's Contemporaries: Illusionism Through the Conquest of Light and Space, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft, 1996, pp. 103, 105, fig. 88.
3. E. Haverkamp-Begemann (ed.), Wadsworth Atheneum Paintings. The Netherlands and the German-speaking Countries. Fifteenth–Nineteenth centuries, Hartford 1978, p. 200, reproduced plate 101.
4. Reproduced in G. Régnier, ‘Un Vermeer du pauvre’, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts,71, May–June 1968, p. 281, fig. 15.
5. Inv. no. 6081. Exhibited in Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting, Royal Academy, London; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Staatliche Museen, Berlin, 1984, no. 123, reproduced plate 111.
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