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Case 10 2010-11 : A painting by Jan de Bray, David and the

return of the Ark of the Covenant

Expert Adviser’s Statement

Reviewing Committee Secretary’s note: Please note that the illustrations

referred to have not been reproduced on the MLA website.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Jan de Bray (Dutch, 1626/7 – 1697)

David and the Return of the Ark of the Covenant, 1670

Signed and dated on the foot of the candlestick: JdBray

Oil on canvas, 142 x 154 cm

Condition: The painting is in very good condition overall (see attached

condition report). There is a horizontal seam in the canvas approximately 30

cm from the bottom edge of the painting. There are some isolated damages

(the most noticeable being an area to the left of David’s shoulder, below the

head of the man in the shadows; and two diagonal lines above and below the

music held by the boy at lower right), but these are minor and presently made

more visible by discoloured inpainting.

Provenance: (possibly) collection Arnold van Halen, Amsterdam; (possibly)

sale Gerard Godaert, baron Taets van Amerongen et al., Amsterdam, 3 July

1805, lot 10 (erroneously as by Salomon de Bray; fl.100, to Coclers);

(possibly) sale Amsterdam, 23 August 1808, lot 10 (fl. 105, to J. A. Spaan);

collection tenth Earl of Wemyss and March, 1914 (but possibly in the family

earlier); by descent to the present owner

Literature: (possibly) Arnold Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh der

Nederlandsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen (Amsterdam, 1718), vol. 1,

fol. 176 (mentions a painting by de Bray of this subject in the collection of

Arnold van Halen in Amsterdam, but dated 1697); (possibly) Jacob Campo

Weyerman, De Levens-beschryvingen der Nederlandsche Konst-schilders en

Konst-schilderessen (The Hague and Dordrecht, 1729-69), vol. 1, p. 398

(repeats information from Houbraken but does not indicate date for the

painting); J. W. von Moltke, ‘Jan de Bray’, Marburger Jahrbuch für

Kunstwissenschaft XI/XII (1938/1939), p. 465 no. 7b; in addition see the

detailed entries in the catalogues to the various exhibitions listed below.

Exhibitions: Dutch Pictures 1450-1750 (London, The Royal Academy, 1952-

3), no. 637; Pictures from Gosford House lent by the Earl of Wemyss and

March (Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, 1957), no. 26; Dutch Art and

Scotland: A reflection of taste (Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, 1992),

no. 9; The Glory of the Golden Age. Dutch Art of the Seventeenth Century:

Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, 2000),

no. 172; Painting Family: The De Brays, Master Painters of 17 th Century


Holland (Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum and Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2008),

no. 34

Waverley criteria

The painting meets Waverley criteria two and three: it is of outstanding

aesthetic importance, as well as of outstanding significance for the study of

the history of Dutch art. De Bray was one of the leading practitioners of the

classicist style in Haarlem during the 17 th century; his approach to subject

matter—as evidenced by this striking depiction of a rare subject from the Old

Testament—was innovative, dynamic and highly personal. David and the

Return of the Ark of the Covenant is a particularly fine example of de Bray’s

work, which is not common in the UK. Moreover it represents two important

themes in Dutch painting of the 17 th century—large-figured history pieces and

the classical tradition—that are simply not well represented in public

collections in the UK.


DETAILED CASE

1. Detailed description of item(s) if more than in Executive summary,

and any comments.

Jan de Bray (1626/7-1698), a native of Haarlem, was one of the most

important representatives of the classicist style in Dutch painting. He was the

son and pupil of the painter and architect Salomon de Bray and the older

brother of the painters Joseph and Dirck de Bray. Jan painted mostly portraits,

but his clear, sculptural style was admirably suited to the depiction of historical

subjects as well. As the leading history painter in Haarlem, de Bray produced

a series of paintings with innovative and unusual themes, of which the present

work is a particularly fine example. David and the Return of the Ark of the

Covenant was painted in 1670, when the artist was at the height of his

powers.

The painting represents King David escorting the Ark of the Covenant (viewed

framed in the archway at left) back to Jerusalem after having recovered it from

the Philistines. David wears a plain white liturgical gown, as described in II

Samuel 6:14-15, and plays the harp in celebration; around him is evidence of

great, solemn rejoicing, including a blast of trumpets at right. The subject is

extremely rare in Dutch art: in the whole of the 17 th century only one other

artist (Leonard Bramer) addressed the theme. De Bray’s ‘staging’ of the scene

is inventive and uniquely dynamic. By presenting the life-sized figures at

three-quarter length he increases the immediacy of the scene. As the viewer

is drawn into the celebration, the sense of jubilation becomes more intensely

personal. The effect is heightened by the light that strikes the figures as they

emerge from a sheltered gateway, creating a dazzling and almost tangible

spectacle of the varied surfaces of cloth, flesh, gilt and metal.

A second version of the composition, painted in 1674, is in the Herzog-Anton-

Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig (see attached reproduction). In that work,

the figure of David in his simple white robe is nearly eclipsed by a

sumptuously clad high priest bearing a censor (possibly a portrait), which

replaces the lead candle-bearer at left. The present (primary) version is the

more successful of the two, as it emphasizes the direct emotional impact of

the scene. It was not unusual for de Bray to paint a second version of one of

this own paintings; a later reworking of the Banquet of Mark Antony and

Cleopatra in the Royal Collection (see below), dated 1669, is in the Currier

Museum of Art, Manchester N.H.

Old Testament themes were enormously popular in Dutch art of the 17 th

century. The reasons for this are varied and complex, but can be traced at

least in part to the availability of vernacular translations of the Bible and an

avid readership for them in a predominantly Protestant nation; a vibrant local

community of Jewish scholars and art patrons; an antiquarian interest in the

Bible as history; and an enduring fascination on the part of both artists and

collectors with both the affective interpretation and the religious significance of

these dramatic tales. It was a particular artistic challenge to interpret an

untried theme—as Jan de Bray has done so brilliantly in David and the Return

of the Ark of the Covenant.


2. Detailed explanation of the outstanding significance of the

item(s).

The significance of Jan de Bray’s David and the return of the Ark of the

Covenant is suggested by its inclusion in a landmark exhibition of 17 th -century

Dutch art held at the Rijksmuseum in 2000 to mark the bicentennial of that

institution’s founding. It was among 145 paintings selected from collections

worldwide (and one of only six from private hands) to convey the quality and

rich diversity of Dutch painting of the golden age. It is without a doubt one of

the most impressive works by this talented artist, and was a highlight of a

recent (2008) exhibition of paintings by four members of the de Bray family.

While depictions of Old Testament subjects are relatively common in Dutch

painting, they are not well represented in public collections in the UK. This

reflects the overall trend in collecting Dutch paintings in England, Scotland

and Wales through the 18 th , 19 th and early 20 th centuries, which (with the

exception of works by Rembrandt) generally favoured landscapes, sea pieces

and genre scenes over historical or biblical scenes. Keeping the painting in

the UK, and ideally in a public collection, is particularly important to more

accurately reflect the range of subject matter covered in Dutch painting in the

17 th century. A large proportion of the Dutch history painting that are present

in UK collections reflects the historical bias towards works by Rembrandt and

his school, but the classicism of de Bray’s painting emphasizes the vibrant

continuity of this competing style.

Indeed, classicism flourished in the Netherlands throughout the 17 th century.

Initially pursued as a reaction to the extremes of Mannerism, Caravaggism

and the painterly and emotive style of Rembrandt and his followers, after midcentury

classicism gathered new energy in a creative quest for clarity,

sublimity and order in form and expression. Utrecht, Amsterdam and

(especially) Haarlem were the leading centres of classicist painting, and it

became the dominant style for important civic, religious and princely

commissions. Many of the most significant examples of Dutch classicist

painting remain in Netherlandish collections, and few are to be found in the

UK.

There are only a handful of paintings by Jan de Bray currently in public or

private collections in the UK:

• Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, 1652 (oil on canvas, 170.2 x

166.4 cm; collection H.M. Queen Elizabeth II)

• Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Anna Westerbaen, 1657 (oil on panel,

66.4 x 50.5 cm; The National Gallery, London)

• Jael and Sisera, 1659 (oil on panel, 40 x 33 cm, York City Art Gallery)

• four small oval portraits, dated 1662 and 1663 (oil on panel, 23.5 x 17.4

and 21.2 x 15.5 cm [each]; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)

Of the two history paintings, Banquet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra is a

portrait historié depicting the artist’s family as guests at this fabled feast; and

Jael and Sisera is a small cabinet piece that lacks the life-sized dramatic

impact of David and the Return of the Ark of the Covenant. Retaining this

picture in the UK is therefore of paramount importance, as there are no


comparable examples of Dutch classicist history paintings in public

collections, either by de Bray or by his closest contemporaries.

Summary

Jan de Bray’s David and the Return of the Ark of the Covenant is a rare

depiction of an unusual subject, an exemplary work by an accomplished

master, and a uniquely compelling example of Dutch classicism. With strong,

fluid brushwork, an innate feel for dramatic composition, and fluency in the

classical language of rhetorical gestures and expressions, de Bray combines

classical decorum with a humanity that is characteristically Dutch. David and

the Return of the Ark of the Covenant exemplifies the persistence of a

classical tradition in the North, and the drive to adapt those formal ideals to

suit a Netherlandish devotion to plausible realism and the direct observation

of nature.

Nicholas Penny, Director, The National Gallery, Expert Advisor

Report prepared by Marjorie E. Wieseman, Curator of Dutch Painting, The

National Gallery

24 September 2010

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