Painting Family: The de Brays, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Jan de Bray didn't hesitate to use his family in one of his most celebrated works and portray it in a less than flattering light

Jan de Bray's Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra is an odd work, but then it was meant to be. The canvas is a portrait historié, a portrait whose subjects are shown as historical characters – in this case, a licentious Roman general and an Egyptian queen whose husbands included two of her brothers. Hardly a flattering depiction, especially given the identity of the sitters: Salomon and Anna de Bray, Jan's father and mother.

Around the elder de Brays are arrayed the artist himself – the half-hidden man to Cleopatra's right is probably a self-portrait – together with various other of their 10 children, roped in as extras. The Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra was painted in 1652. In 1663-64, an outbreak of plague in Haarlem killed Salomon de Bray and all but three of his living offspring, one of them Jan. By then, Jan had buried two young wives and would bury another, along with his only child, a son. Like the story he had painted a dozen years before, all would end in tragedy.

What we see in the Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra is an elision of life and art, and not just in the work's coincidental endings. Jan was 25 when he painted the picture, and he had learned its Dutch classicism from his father. Two of his brothers, Dirck and Joseph, were also Salomon's students and would work in his studio. Art history tends to be impersonal, its currents and countercurrents put down to sociology, economics or Hegelian dialectic. It's easy to forget that art was also formed by the dynamics of the family – an oversight that the Dulwich Picture Gallery's excellent show, Painting Family: The de Brays, aims to correct.

The Carraccis, the Bellinis, four generations of the Teniers; all those artists designated The Older or The Younger, père or fils; these, too, shaped how art was made. The family is Freud's battleground, and it is tempting to see the Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra with a Freudian eye. Netherlandish art may have been full of winks and nudges, but depicting your parents as a traitor and a whore was going it even so.

Salomon was 55 when his son painted him as Mark Antony, an old man for his day. His early career had coincided with those of greater Dutch painters such as Gerard van Honthorst, one of a group known as the Utrecht Caravaggists. Salomon's Martyrdom of St Lawrence, done in the same year as his son's portrait historié, looks as though it was painted 20 years earlier. Four decades after Caravaggio's death, its concerns are still the Caravaggist ones of conjuring light out of darkness.

There's a bit of vestigial Caravaggism in Jan's Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, but the younger man's light is more fluid, less sculptural, newer. One of its effects is to push Jan's self-portrait into the shadows, although the directness of his gaze – he's the only adult to meet our eye – means that he's anything but overshadowed. The Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra exists in two worlds, one of classical antiquity and classicist painting occupied by Salomon, the other of the present and the new dominated by Jan. It is a portrait not just of a family but of yesterday's man and tomorrow's, the latter biding his time. Jan might as well have painted his father as Laius. His intent could not be more Oedipal.

Where was all of this leading? It depended on which de Bray you happened to be. Salomon's elder son, Dirck, avoided competing with his father by painting flowers and still lifes. His Still Life with a Dead Rabbit and Falcon in a Niche is a minor masterpiece, but it is minor. Joseph, the youngest, had the shortest career, dying from the plague at 35. Like Dirck, he seems to have been an adept painter of still lifes, although his work in this show is charming rather than great.

It was Jan who got out from under, surpassing his father to become one of the finest Dutch history painters of his day. In the rooms given over to his work, we see him playing around with Rubens and Helst and fellow Haarlemite Frans Hals – with anyone except Salomon, in fact. Jan's later allegories and mythological pictures edge towards greatness. You wonder what would have happened had his son lived; what a third generation of the painting family might have done.



Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020-8693 5254) to 5 Oct

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz