This slim volume, which explores the work of four Haarlem artists, the history painter, architect and theoretician, Salomon de Bray, and his three sons, Jan, Joseph and Dirk, is a unique and quite brilliant concept. The variety and quality of works makes it an important catalogue of a significant exhibition.
Each of the sons copied and worked from his father’s paintings in an organized workshop – but drew different lessons from him. Salomon de Bray (1597-1664) and his eldest son, Jan (c. 1627- 1698) were closest in their classical subjects and in their generally large-scale, even monumental productions. Sons Joseph (c.1632/34-1664) and Dirk (c.1635–1694) became still-life painters. The choice if anything was conventional and practical, as suggested by Pieter Biesboer in his Introduction: “As the oldest son, Jan was entitled to first choice in his specialization and succeeded his father as a history painter,” and “probably for commercial reasons, it was decided that Joseph would specialise in still-life painting.” Thus Joseph and Dirk would make their mark in this area of specialization, though the latter somewhat more modestly.
Salomon de Bray, a leading artist of Dutch Classicism in Haarlem, was dean of the local Guild of St. Luke, which he sought to reorganize in order to allow painters a more prominent role. He believed in order and rules – in mathematics and thus in music, architecture and painting –, aspects that are explored in the catalogue. Although he painted some portraits and was a significant draughtsman, he is most known for his history paintings of biblical and classical scenes. In fact, he received a commission to paint several large works for the Oranjezaal in the Huis ten Bosch, The Hague. His works, as well as those of his son, Jan, are well represented in older exhibition catalogues that should be brought to the reader’s attention in connection with the present catalogue: Gods, Saints & Heroes, Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The Detroit Institute of Art; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) 1980/81 and Dutch Classicism in Seventeenth-Century Painting (Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfur/M) 1999/2000, as well as the brochure, Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), 2005.
Jan de Bray’s group portraits – of regents and regentesses of the Leper Hospital, 1667, and of the Almshouse in Haarlem, 1663 and 1664, as well as one of the governors of the Guild itself, 1675, suggest the esteem in which he was held, as well as testify to the void he filled in Haarlem after the death of Frans Hals in 1664.
The other two brothers, Joseph and Dirk, are today little-known still-life – mainly flower – painters. Indeed as Fred Meijer writes in his opening essay: “When the subject of still-life painting in Haarlem in the seventeenth century is broached, the chances are high that the names of Dirk and Joseph de Bray will not come up.” This frank assessment is not so much a disparagement of their work – as indeed they executed a number of exquisite pieces – but the predominance of the so-called “monochromatic banquet pieces” of Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda or the more colorful treatments of tables laden with food and exotica by Floris van Dijk. Flower painters were few in Haarlem.
Until recently only one work (and its copy) was known to be by Joseph de Bray: an impressive still life of 1656, In Praise of Pekelharing (yes,in praise of pickled herring!). The painting is a tour de force of food, drink and a variety of textures (glass, pottery, porcelain, fish – whole and sliced – bread, butter, beer) and a stone tablet upon which is engraved the poem, written by his uncle, Jacob van Westerbaen, that describes the serving and eating of this meal. The flower paintings identified in this catalogue as by Joseph are new and welcome additions; those by Dirk of flowers and of game are masterful.
Also explored in this volume are the family’s relationships with their many patrons and with the painters Pieter de Grebber and Pieter Soutman, the painter and architect, Jacob van Campen, and the painter and poet (and brother-in-law of Salomon – uncle to the boys), Jacob Westerbaen. This is a welcome addition to the study of the Golden Age and especially to the art of Haarlem.
Frima Fox Hofrichter