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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum