Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra
oil on canvas
97 7/8 in. x 75 3/16 in. (248.6 cm x 190.98 cm)
Jan de Bray
The grand scale of Jan de Bray’s Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra
befits the lavish setting and dramatic narrative of its subject. At the center of the composition, a man wearing a laurel wreath and a woman dressed in silk with a bejeweled crown and strands of pearls in her hair sit before a banquet table. The conspicuous placement of a plush Persian carpet, gold platters, and finely wrought glassware adds to the richness of the scene. The central couple’s eyes meet just as the woman reaches to remove her pearl earring. They are seated in front of a platter containing a pig’s head and are surrounded by ten young attendants who watch them with anticipation. The banquet table is dramatically lit and framed by a red velvet curtain. These details, in addition to the raised platform and the direct outward gaze of the young girl in blue, standing third from the left, add to the theatrical effect.
Context and Analysis
Along with Frans Hals, De Bray was one of the most important portrait painters in Haarlem in the 1600s. He portrayed the city’s well-to-do Dutch citizens, including several members of his own family. Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra
is an example of a portrait historié
, a pictorial genre in which contemporary sitters were depicted in the guise of figures from classical mythology, ancient history, and the Bible. In this case, the sitters included De Bray himself, his wife, parents, and siblings.
The artist included his self-portrait at the far left of this painting. His father, the prolific architect and painter Salomon de Bray, and mother are recognizable from other known portraits. In this painting, they assume the roles of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. They are portrayed at the dramatic moment when, according to the ancient writer Pliny, Cleopatra removes her pearl earring and prepares to dissolve it in a glass of vinegar and drink it. In doing so, she wins a bet she made with Antony about who could host the most expensive banquet. Swallowing the costly pearl trumped any meal Antony could have ordered.
The story of Antony and Cleopatra’s legendary banquet would have been well known to viewers in the 1600s. The tale was told in popular literature and was the subject of numerous Dutch paintings. De Bray’s representation of the story as a portrait historié
was unique, however. Just five years before he painted this composition, his family was decimated by the plague that swept through Haarlem. Only Jan and his brother Dirck survived. His first wife, pictured here just to the right of his mother, died in childbirth the year before he finished this painting. Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra
therefore not only celebrates marital fidelity and prosperity, but also serves as a painted tribute to the artist’s family.
This work is one of three portraits historiés
currently on view. The others are Helen of Troy
(1615) (Currier, 2007.5
), painted by Hendrick Goltzius who also worked in Haarlem, and De Bray’s The Penitent Magdalene
(1678), which depicts his third wife in the guise of her namesake, Mary Magdalen.
Written by Nadia Baadj
Biesboer, Pieter, ed. Painting Family: The De Brays, Master Painters of 17th-century Holland
. Exh. cat. Haarlem: Frans Hals Museum, 2008.
Blankert, Albert, and others. Dutch Classicism in Seventeenth-Century Painting
. Exh. cat. Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 1999, 296–99.
Robinson, Franklin W. “The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra by Jan de Bray.” Currier Gallery of Art Bulletin
Wheelock, Arthur, and others. Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition
. Exh. cat. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2004.
1972 Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, "Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts from the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire." May 14 - June 20.
1972 Hopkins Center Art Galleries, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, Painting Exchange. Sept. 25 - Oct. 25.
1979 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, "Small Gallery on a Large Scale." June 16 - July 29.
1990-1991 "Great Dutch Paintings in America." Organized by Royal Picture Gallery 'Mauritshuis' and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Traveled to: Royal Picture Gallery 'Mauritshuis', The Hague, Netherlands, Sept. 28, 1990 - Jan. 13, 1991; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, Feb. 16 - May 5, 1991.
1999-2000 "Classicism in Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century." Organized by Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Traveled to: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands, Sept. 26, 1999 - Jan 9, 2000; Frankfurt Art Museum, Frankfurt, Germany, Feb. 2 - April 30, 2000.
2004-2005 "Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition." Organized by the Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Traveled to: Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, Nov. 12, 2004 - Feb. 21, 2005; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, March 13 - Aug. 14, 2005; Speed Art
Museum, Louisville, Kansas, Sept. 6 - Dec. 4, 2005.
2017-18 Currier Museum of Art, "Going Baroque." Dec. 9, 2017-Aug. 2018
2021 "As Precious as Gold: Carpets from the Islamic World" Currier Museum of Art, Oct. 23, 2021 - Feb. 28. 2022.
Fleischmann Lempertz and Schall, auction, lot 28, September 19-21, 1892
Heinrich Theodor Hoeck, 1892
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, lot 400, 1909-1965
Julius Bohler, 1965
Christie's, lot 88, (from Germanisches Museum, Nuremberg, lot 400), July 1, 1965
S. Nystad, 1968-69
Purchased by Currier Gallery of Art, 1969