PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
With Bernheimer, Munich;
With Julius Böhler, Munich;
From whom acquired by John D. McIlhenny (1910–1986), Philadelphia, on 21 January 1915;
By inheritance to his widow, by 1935;
With Gebr. Douwes, London, 1979–80 (by whom advertised in Apollo, March 1980);
Acquired for the present collection shortly after, and certainly by 1985.
C. Brière-Misme, 'Un ‘intimiste’ Hollandais – Jacob Vrel', Revue de l’Art, November 1935, pp. 110, n. 2, reproduced p. 107, fig. 5;
E. Plietzsch, 'Jacobus Vrel und Esaias Boursse', in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 4, 1949, pp. 248 ff.;
W.R. Valentiner, 'Jacques de Ville or Jacobus Vrel', Bulletin of the J. Paul Getty Museum of Art, I, 2, 1959, pp. 23 ff.;
G. Regnier, 'Jacob Vrel, un Vermeer du Pauvre', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, May–June 1968, reproduced p. 281, fig. 15;
W. Bernt, Die Niederländischen Maler des 17. Jahrhunderts, Munich 1980, vol. III, reproduced plate 1432;
E.A. Honig, Everything there is to know about... Jacob Vrel, MS, RKD, The Hague, 25 March 1985, no. B-5;
F.J. Duparc, Masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age, exh. cat., Atlanta 1985, p. 126, no. 57, reproduced;
E.A. Honig, 'Looking in (to) Jacob Vrel', in Yale Journal of Criticism, III, 1, 1989, pp. 37 ff;
E. M[ai], in E. Mai (ed.), Das Kabinett des Sammlers, Cologne 1993, pp. 267–68, no. 105, reproduced.
His townscapes are equally enigmatic and mysterious. They are nearly all views along streets of brick-built houses, some partly whitewashed, and often including shops, such as the barber or barber-surgeon identified by the golden bowls hanging from a pole in this and several other paintings by him. The roads are usually paved with boulders, some of which are apparently aligned to improve drainage, and others possibly placed to protect the fixtures of buildings from wagon wheels, and vice versa. They are peopled with townsfolk: typically women in red blouses and dark skirts, their heads covered in white cloth; the men in broad-brimmed hats. Vrel gives the viewer the sense that he is in the street, taking part in the life of the town even, but always unobserved. It is perhaps this characteristic, also found in Vermeer’s street scenes, that have led some to assume that Vrel was also from Delft.2 There is however no evidence for this. Because his street scenes are always so plausible they appear readily identifiable, but they are not. The architecture appears at first glance to be Dutch, but Vrel’s towns are probably not from The Netherlands, and are much more likely to be from further east, across the German border, perhaps in Westphalia or Friesland, or as some including Regnier have suggested, further south, near Antwerp, but certainly in the flat lands of north-west Europe where brick predominates as a building material. This impression that we are not in Holland is reinforced by the presence of hooded Capuchin monks in several paintings, including this one. It has often been suggested that they are completely imaginary, and the introduction of a curve in most of them, or a viewpoint from one side that prevents the viewer from seeing all the way down the street, or in this case a massive brick structure pierced by stone arch which closes off the street, gives the impression that the artist does not want the viewer to see further because he does not know himself what lies beyond.3
So far attempts to place streets in Vrel’s townscapes in relation to one another have proved fruitless, but it has become apparent when researching the present work that the left side of the street depicted here occurs in mirror image as the right side of the street in a painting sold at Sotheby’s from the Van Dedem collection in July 2018 (see fig. 2).4 The full implications of this will require further consideration, but we do know that Vrel made chalk drawings – two survive in a private collection – so he might have reversed a street that he drew using a counterproof to serve as a guide. It is not clear in the ex-Van Dedem painting what the purpose is of the structure comprising two limestone or marble tombstone-like uprights with brick behind them, whereas here we see that this is the entrance to a religious building, presumably a monastery.5
Opposite the monastery entrance two more upright light stone pillars with curved tops announce a steep stone stair to a bridge with a fence and picket-gate over a drainage culvert where a man in a broad-brimmed hat, perhaps a prelate, leans on the fence. Both sides of the street are fully visible in the ex-Van Dedem picture, but not in this one. The projecting sign hanging from a horizontal pole and a tiled open porch are, however, to be found in both paintings.
There is one more thing we can learn from the present painting about the enigmatic and mysterious Jacobus Vrel: he clearly had a sense of humour. He inscribed his signature on a banderole that has just been jettisoned by a figure who leans out of the open window of a box-like windowed structure projecting from the third storey of a house, which looks very much like a privy. You might cast the result of your doings from the privy window into the street below: Vrel appears to have a figure, possibly himself, do the same but with his own name.
Most of Vrel’s skies are grey, partly due to clouds, but possibly also due to the use of smalt which can degrade from blue to grey with age. In the present picture the blue has survived, like the rest of the painting, very well. We see a largely blue sky with some slight grey clouds and higher cloud lit creamy-yellow by the sun. In this as in some other paintings, Vrel has used powdered gold in the upturned crescent moon of the inn sign, and in the golden bowls of the projecting barber’s sign.
The loan of this painting has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition devoted to Jacobus Vrel opening at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich in October 2020, and subsequently at the Fondation Custodia, Paris and the Mauritshuis, The Hague.
NOTE ON PROVENANCE
The sequence of ownership is different to that usually given but is based on the more detailed account published in 1935 by Brière-Misme, who gives the ownership as Mme John D. Mc Illhenny, and gives an account of the earlier ownership in note 2. Regnier, in 1968, still locates the ownership in the McIllhenny collection, Philadelphia.
1 See Brière-Misme 1935.
2 The first person to write about Vrel was Vermeer’s rediscoverer Thoré in 1866, and the association with Vermeer and with Delft endured: as late as 1968, G. Regnier wrote an article entitled 'Jacob Vrel, un Vermeer du pauvre', in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6, lxxi, 1968, pp. 269–82.
3 In a painting in the John G. Johnson collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (cat. 542) the street is closed off by the looming bulk of a large church.
4 Sotheby’s London, 4 July 2018, lot 36.
5 These paired stone pillars occur in a number of Vrel street scenes. They are one of several highly distinctive characteristics that should identify the area that inspired Vrel’s paintings but so far they have not done so.
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