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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jan de Bray

The Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra, 1652, Jan de Bray
It's no secret among art historians that great art and artists run in various families. We could probably all cite instances when so and so got his or her art talent from their father or mother, or perhaps an aunt or uncle in cases where such a gifts swing haphazardly from branch to branch in a family tree like rambunctious monkeys (which often happens). As an art instructor in the public schools, I encountered this phenomena several times. Art historians are quite accustomed to seeing this because, in the past, not only was there a genetic component involved in "art clans" but also economic and cultural elements as well. Fathers often trained their sons (sometimes daughters, too) in the family trade. In American art, the Peale extended family of artists, and more recently, the Wyeth family come to mind. In French art, take a look at the Pissarro family tree sometime.
Portrait of Salomon de Bray and
Anna Westerbaen, 1660, Jan de Bray
(the artist's parents)
Because of this cultural tradition of offspring following in their fathers' footsteps, we see in European art history quite a number of family trees full of painters. In Dutch art history, especially during the so-called "Golden Age" (basically the 17th century) I've written about several such painting clans. One of the most interesting is that of Salomon de Bray (right). Salomon was primarily an architect, but one who could also paint portraits. More importantly he and his wife, Anna Westerbaen (who boasted a poet and a painter in her own family tree), had four sons and three daughters. All four sons, Jan, Dirck, Joseph, and Jacob, became painters. Jan de Bray, the eldest (born in 1627), was the most talented. Thus, he was taught to paint portraits and history by his father (and others). Dirck painted flowers (and later joined a monastery), while Joseph and Jacob, the two youngest, were relegated to painting still-lifes. One of Jan de Bray's earliest major works was his 1652 painting, The Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra (top), which, though technically a history painting, is really much more of a family group portrait in which the artist used all his brothers and sisters as models.

The Governors of the Guild of St. Luke, Haarlem, 1675, Jan de Bray.
Typical of de Bray's group portraits, the artist is second from the left.
The Dutch Golden Age was a time of great wealth and prosperity in Holland and the Netherlands. The de Bray family, led by the rising star of Jan de Bray, prospered during this period. Then in 1664, tragedy struck, not just the de Bray family but much of Europe--the plague. England and the Netherlands were especially hard hit, including the city of Haarlem were the de Brays resided. Within a span of a single month, Salomon (his father) and Jan's two youngest brothers succumbed to the epidemic. Seventeen years after his first effort, in 1669, Jan de Bray painted a second version of his earlier Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra (bottom). Once more he depicted family members in the scene. This time, however, the work took on a more somber note. Three of those portrayed had died.

Banquet of Anthony and Cleopatra, 1669, Jan de Bray.


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