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De Bray Exhibit Illustrates Tangled Web of Influences

At first blush, an exhibit of roughly a half-dozen portraits by a relatively obscure 17th-century Dutch classicist may not seem like much of a happening.

But in the case of the National Gallery of Art’s new exhibit, “Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition,” you’ll be amazed where those paintings can lead.

Indeed, when it comes to understanding the relationships between de Bray and other artists and works in the National Gallery, you’d be advised to first construct a social network analysis.

De Bray, who was born in Haarlem, the Netherlands, in 1627, learned to paint from his father, history painter Salomon de Bray — and there begins the story.

The elder de Bray was a student of Hendrick Goltzius, one of the foremost Dutch exemplars of classicism, which melded naturalism and idealized beauty, at a time when realism dominated in the Netherlands. Goltzius, in turn, was influenced by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, who visited him in Haarlem in 1613 at the same time Rubens was painting his enormous masterpiece “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” which can be seen through the doorway in an adjoining gallery. In that room hangs Goltzius’ “The Fall of Man,” a “very sexy” rendering of Eve offering Adam the forbidden fruit, which is reminiscent of Rubens’ classical style, said the exhibit’s curator, Arthur Wheelock.

A few years later, when Rubens traded “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” for an antique sculpture owned by the British ambassador to The Hague, Sir Dudley Carleton, the painting was delivered by fellow artists Frans de Grebber and his son Pieter de Grebber, who was both a friend of Salomon de Bray and a student of Goltzius.

“There’s a direct connection between Rubens, Goltzius, Salomon and Jan de Bray,” Wheelock noted.

But the interlinking web hardly stops there.

The influence of Rubens and Frans Hals, a Dutch contemporary of de Bray, on the artist can be seen in two of their paintings, which are also part of the show.

De Bray’s double-headed profile of his parents, the acquisition of which served as the exhibit’s organizing piece, is likely modeled after Rubens’ earlier “Tiberius and Agrippina” Roman-style cameo, a relatively rare form of portraiture in Dutch and Flemish painting.

“It’s the type of Dutch art that most Americans are not aware existed,” Wheelock said of de Bray’s classicism.

Likewise, similarities between the positioning of the figure in Hals’ portrait of fellow artist Adriaen van Ostade and a portrait by de Bray of a boy holding a basket of fruit are also apparent. (To get a taste of van Ostade’s work, head directly into the gallery behind the one-room de Bray exhibit for a peek at “The Cottage Dooryard.”)

De Bray was a pre-eminent painter of portrait historié, in which contemporary individuals take the guise of Biblical, mythological or classical figures, and three of the exhibit’s five de Bray portraits depict him and/or family members playing the parts of history’s luminaries.

He and his first wife, Maria van Hees, come to life as Ulysses and Penelope; his third wife, Victoria Magdalena Stalpert van der Wiele, as Mary Magdalene; and finally his beloved parents as the title characters in the “Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra,” who, according to legend, famously bet her lover that she could throw the more extravagant dinner party and won by dissolving a priceless pearl earring in vinegar during the repast. (De Bray had a tragic life. He lost his entire family to the plague in the early 1660s, and each of his three wives died within a year or two of their marriage.)

Just one room over, in the exhibit “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits,” you can compare the portrait historié of Rembrandt, who famously depicted himself as the Apostle Paul, with that of de Bray.

“It’s nice to tie in small shows like [this] with your collection,” Wheelock said. “Suddenly, you understand the painting in a way you don’t if it’s just hanging in the gallery.”

“Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition” runs through Aug. 14 in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. For more information on exhibit-related activities, go to

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