Art — Jan De Bray

Jan De Bray


By Michelle Saturley


Is that goddess your mother?


If you’ve been to the Currier Museum of Art in the last … oh, four decades or so, you probably noticed Jan De Bray’s “Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra,” in the permanent collection. Great, you probably thought, another classical painting by a dead Dutch guy depicting a historical tableau.

That is, until you get the full story on Jan De Bray (1626-1697), a Haarlem, Holland native whose great masterpieces were not your average portraits. Look a little closer at the faces in “Antony and Cleopatra,” and you’ll find that the artist used his own family members as models for the great historical figures. In the portrait, Antony and Cleopatra have made a little lovers’ wager over who could provide the most expensive banquet for their friends and peers. The story goes that in order to win, Cleopatra calledfor a glass of vinegar, into which she dropped a pearl earring. She waited for it to dissolve, and then swallowed it. With this act, Cleopatra served the costliest meal. In his painting, De Bray depicted the moment when she nonchalantly removes the priceless pearl from her ear. The artist’s parents, who died in the plague of 1663-64, are portrayed as Antony and Cleopatra. De Bray’s wife, Maria van Hess, who died during childbirth in 1669, is the second woman in profile on the right. De Bray even found a way to work himself into the picture: the figure on the left, holding the halberd, is the artist’s self-portrait.

“For nearly 40 years, visitors to the Currier have been intrigued by the back-story of the 17th-century Dutch artist’s greatest masterpieces. The continued interest in the painting sparked the new exhibit, “Jan De Bray and the Classical Tradition.” The show features five of the artist’s paintings and examines for the first time the art of De Bray and the distinctions between formal portraits and portrait historie in his work. The portrait historie is a type of portrait in which the subject takes on a role from history or allegory. For example, the artist and his wife are the stars of “Odysseus and Penelope”. In the scene, van Hess is the ever-patient Penelope, working her loom, while De Bray is Odysseus, who appears to be trying to explain his rather lengthy absence.

It may seem like a vanity project, but it’s actually a unique, humorous way of making history seem more contemporary. It’s also a clever way for an artist to immortalize his loved ones. It’s an idea that’s been used time and again in the modern age.

For the past year, Dr. Kurt Sundstrom, associate curator (who also organized the fabulous Lotte Jacobi exhibit last year), and Dr. Arthur Wheelock, Curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, have collaborated on the assembling of the pieces. The exhibit’s first stop is the Currier, before traveling to two other museums. The museums loaning the paintings that form the core of the exhibition are also the three hosting institutions. Two other Jan de Bray pictures will round out the exhibition: “Portrait of a Boy holding a Basket of Fruit”, 1658 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA) and “The Penitent Magdalena,” 1670 (private collection).

On Sunday, Jan. 23, Sundstrom will lead a lecture, “Jan De Bray and Portrait Historie,” at 2 p.m. The lecture will explore a new view of how De Bray created a sophisticated visual vocabulary that used classical religious and mythological references — with an ulterior motive.

—Michelle Saturley

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