Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
Though unsigned, this painting is typical of Jacobus Vrel's art in its depiction of a tall and narrow domestic interior in shadow with a hearth and lighted windows in the back wall. A woman in a white kerchief sits head in hand beside the fireplace; to the right a child's cradle appears before an enclosed "box bed" with a brass bedwarmer hanging on the wall and blue ceramic plates and a brass salver providing decoration above. The bedding is draped on the chair and the pillows have been plumped and sit airing on a table at the back. Other cozy details are the family pets-a small, spotted dog lying at the woman's feet and a cat making itself comfortable perched on a small footwarmer on the floor. Characteristic of Vrel's interior is the spare and attenuated space, the curiously stunted furniture, and the shadowed foreground and cool backlighting.
Closest in conception and design to the present work are three other domestic interiors with tall windows, a hearth, and a woman viewed in lost profile, namely Woman and Child beside a Table (Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts), Woman Combing a Child's Hair (Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts) and Woman at a Window (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). The date 1654 appears on the last mentioned. Since the present work is related in style, composition and technique to the Vienna painting a similar date is proposed for the Baroness's painting. Vrel depicted women, usually singly, in a variety of domestic roles: tending a fire, doing laundry, ministering to children or convalescents, or simply reading or sleeping. Many of the same furnishings (the box bed, chairs, candlesticks, dishes, etc.) reappear in his other interiors but the rooms themselves vary in subtle ways. Like Pieter de Hooch he favoured contre-jour illumination and an expressive use of space with glimpses through a window or door to the diminutive alleyways that feature in his street scenes. However, Vrel never attained De Hooch's sophisticated command of perspective and consistently avoided views to adjoining rooms-De Hooch's signature motif. Vrel concentrated instead on the single all-purpose room that formed the centre of the huisvrouw's home life, gently illuminated by the tall windows in the far wall. His rather naïve drawing style and straightforward, somewhat dry painting technique rarely resorted to glazes or other refinements but beautifully complements his quiet and unpretentious domestic themes.
Apparently another version of this painting of similar dimensions (panel 64.5 x 47.5 cm), but which to judge from the reproduction may only be a copy, was sold in London.
Peter C. Sutton