Jan de Bray

(b Haarlem, c. 1627; bur Haarlem, 4 Dec 1697).

Painter, draughtsman and etcher, son of (1) Salomon de Bray. He spent virtually the whole of his career in Haarlem, except for the period 1686–8, when he lived in Amsterdam. After training with his father, Jan began working as a portrait painter in Haarlem in 1650, an activity he continued for the next 40 years. Between 1667 and 1684 he served on the committee for the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, whose leading members he portrayed in a picture dated 1675 (Amsterdam, Rijksmus.) that includes a self-portrait (Jan is seen standing and drawing on the left). He married three times, in 1668, 1670 and 1672. His first two wives died a year after their marriage, his third two years afterwards, and in each case the death was followed by disputes over the inheritance. Jan’s bankruptcy of 1689 may have been a result of one of the lawsuits. He was 62 at the time, and from then onwards he seems to have lost his artistic drive, crushed by the financial blow and the consequent loss of social position.

1. Portraits.

More than half of Jan’s painted output consists of individual portraits; besides these, there are double portraits and five large, extremely important group portraits (1663–75) relating to the regent and the local militia company. Jan’s earliest dated painting, a Portrait of a Girl (1650; Prague, N.G., Šternberk Pal.), is tentative and subdued in style. Better and more typical is the Portrait of a Man (1658; Paris, Louvre), for which a preparatory study also survives (London, BM). The picture shows a man in his prime, with an imposing physical presence, facing towards the right; he is wearing severe, black garments, with a white collar. The sitter’s lively facial expression—especially his attentive gaze towards the viewer—adds to the sense of immediacy conveyed by the portrait. Thus, although it was still relatively early in Jan’s career as a portrait painter (he was just over 30 when he painted it), he had clearly already acquired considerable skill. Over the years he developed this sureness of touch to great perfection, though at the same time his portraits began to suffer from a certain impersonal superficiality that detracted from their content.

Jan can be seen at his best in the portrait of Andries van der Horne (1662; Lisbon, priv. col., see von Moltke, no. 47, wrongly identified as Jean de Chambre), a much more elegant half-length depiction of a middle-aged man, who looks out at the viewer confidently and somewhat critically. He holds a document in his right hand, his gloves in his left. Secure in the knowledge of his position in Amsterdam society, van der Horne observes life around him in with a cool, measuring eye. De Bray has conveyed a face full of character and endowed the sober black dress worn at the time with a festive brilliancy.

The group portrait of the Leading Members of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke (1675; Amsterdam, Rijksmus.) is remarkable for its sense of realism: the guild members seem to be discussing and debating some contentious point of the agenda. The intrinsically dry subject of a group of men all dressed in black was enlivened by the artist’s ability to break down the conventional framework. One of his last-known works is the portrait of the Catholic priest Johannes Groot (1692; Haarlem, Bisschopp. Mus.), painted three years after his bankruptcy.

2. History subjects.

Jan de Bray’s painting of Penelope and Odysseus (1668; Louisville, KY, Speed A. Mus.; see fig.), a double portrait of a married couple dressed up in Classical guise, is a cross between history painting and pure portraiture. Penelope is shown holding a loom on which she had been working for years, hoping that Odysseus would return to her from the Trojan War. The dog, Argus, has recognized his master, even though Odysseus is disguised as a beggar. Happily reunited at last, the couple lean towards each other with great reserve, for the estrangement resulting from their long separation has to be overcome. Although scenes from Homer’s Odyssey were relatively rare as subjects for paintings in the northern Netherlands before the end of the 17th century, both Salomon and Jan found the story an important source of inspiration. Jan depicted the scene of the return of Odysseus with great delicacy and psychological insight, in a beautifully unified composition.

As the years went by, Jan adopted an increasingly academic style in his paintings: it was streamlined but correspondingly less spontaneous. His picture of David with the Harp (1674; Brunswick, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Mus.) is an example of the rigidity that gradually overtook his work. The composition, depicting the solemn procession of King David bearing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, is carefully worked out; each figure is placed according to his importance. From a formal point of view, the representation is achieved with great success, yet it is missing the sense of immediacy that would otherwise have endowed the picture with real life. From the mid-1670s until his death, the contemporary preference for a more classicizing concept of art dominated his work, and as a result his originality gradually waned. This development may also help to explain why he gave up painting creatively towards the end of his life. Only two works are known from the period after his bankruptcy: besides the portrait of Johannes Groot, he painted the Four Apostles for a clandestine church in Amersfoort (1696; now Udenhout, parish church).


W. Martin: De Hollandsche schilderkunst in die zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam, 1935), i, pp. 27, 49, 117–19

J. W. von Moltke: ‘Jan de Bray’, Marburg. Jb. Kstwiss., xi–xii (1938–9), pp. 421–523

J. Rosenberg, S. Slive and E. H. ter Kuile: Dutch Art and Architecture, 1600–1800, Pelican Hist. A. (Harmondsworth, 1966/R 1982), p. 321

Gods, Saints and Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt (exh. cat., ed. A. Blankert; Washington, DC, N.G.A.; Detroit, MI, Inst. A.; Amsterdam, Rijksmus.; 1980–81), pp. 224–9