- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

Following last October’s reopening of its Dutch and Flemish galleries , the National Gallery of Art is inaugurating a series of exhibitions devoted to lesser-known Dutch artists. With blockbuster shows of 17th-century golden age painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Franz Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn already to its credit, the gallery’s exhibits of such rarely seen artists as Jan de Bray should prove equally fascinating.

In “Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition,” curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. has juxtaposed five finely painted De Bray portraits alongside additional works by Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Hals to demonstrate the three painters’ close connections.

De Bray (c. 1627-1697) specialized in the “portrait historie,” or historicized portrait, in which he posed family and friends as elegantly dressed historical figures.

Visitors should be informed that the artist’s parents take on the guises of Antony and Cleopatra in the tall, magnificent “Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra” and that the artist painted himself and his first wife, Maria van Hees, as an impressive Ulysses and Penelope

Why, then, hasn’t the public heard more about this artist?

The answer is that he specialized in allegorical and religious scenes and historical portraits. Such works, however, were not in favor during the 19th-century heyday of American collecting that favored Dutch genre paintings.

The popularity of these everyday Netherlandish scenes outweighed the classical, naturalistic subject matter he favored, and his name was forgotten.

The concept of the “portrait historie” could confuse today’s audiences, but fortunately the helpful exhibit brochure explains it.

De Bray was steeped in classical traditions that idealized and memorized the past, especially the Roman nobility, and he based the moving double profile “Portrait of the Artist’s Parents, Salomon de Bray and Anna Westerbaen,” on Rubens’ luminous double portrait of “Tiberius and Agrippina”— mounted nearby. (Rubens, in turn, based his figures on classical Roman cameos.)

In the posthumous painting, de Bray commemorated his parents’ deaths during the Haarlem plague of 1663-1664 (during which four of his siblings also died). He painted his father and mother as a somber, stiff-lipped pair in stark black dress. They seem to mirror the horror of the times as well as Franz Hals’ somber portrait of “Adriaen van Ostade” placed nearby.

The artist often painted images of loved ones in his “portrait historie” works. He depicted his third wife Magdalene as “The Penitent Magdalene.” and included additional family in the “Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra” with himself, his first wife and siblings standing around the celebratory feast. In “A Couple Represented as Ulysses and Penelope,” the artist commemorates his first marriage to Maria van Hees.

Despite their happy surroundings, these men and women may be viewed as ghosts. De Bray’s parents and siblings died of the plague, and the lives of all of his wives were cut tragically short, as well.

The exhibit brochure tells visitors that the artist lost his first wife, Maria van Hees, in 1669, only one year after their nuptials. His second wife, Margaretha de Meyer, died in 1673, a year after the wedding. De Bray’s third wife, Victoria Magdalena Stalpert van der Wielen, died in childbirth in 1680.

In his most impressive example of the “portrait historie,” “A Couple Represented as Ulysses and Penelope,” de Bray, dressed in armor and cloak, exudes sexuality while Maria, as his faithful wife Penelope, recognizes him by the attentions of his faithful dog. Its intense emotion is unforgettable.

Visitors have the opportunity to discover a major 17th-century Dutch artist in this impressive exhibition and can do so again with the artists featured in the rest of the series: “Pieter Claesz” (Sept. 18-Dec. 31) and “Amorous Intrigues and Painterly Refinement: The Art of Frans van Mieris (Feb. 26-May 21, 2006.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Wheelock says he has even more Dutch golden age exhibitions up his sleeve.

WHAT: “Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition”

WHERE: West Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. through 6 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 14

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB: www.nga.gov

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