The overall tone of this composition is far from the light-hearted musical gatherings depicted by de Bray’s contemporaries. He has imbued his musician with a serious calm reminiscent of an antique model, whilst also effortlessly realising the polished finish of the worn fingerboard of the viol, the matt wool of the dog’s coat, and the spatial effect created by the polished convex back of the upturned lute that juts out towards the viewer. Whilst the children lean in towards one another and continue to sing, one beating out the rhythm with a raised hand, the violinist turns to us with an open and confrontational look, as if observing our reaction to their music, making us a kind of reticent listener as well as an observer of their practice.
In this work not only has the artist created a convincing and atmospheric ‘genre’ piece, but in his insightful and sensitive depiction of the musician, de Bray has produced a compelling portrait (albeit that we do not know the man who posed for him). Jan de Bray is often cited as having taken the position as Haarlem’s favourite portrait painter during the second half of the seventeenth century, following the death of Frans Hals in 1666. The influence of Hals is felt here in the cool silver-grey tonality of the violinist’s face, although this is unashamedly broken by the lavish use of vermillion in his slashed doublet, which lends an impression of robust individualism and creativity to the protagonist.
This painting is dated eight years after De Bray’s earliest recorded work, a period of his early maturity thought by Hans Schneider to be when the artist’s best qualities are in evidence.1 The painter spent most of his career painting exclusively in Haarlem, bar a two-year stint in Amsterdam between 1686 and 1688. Apart from his work as a portraitist, Jan went on to become a painter of classicised allegorical and historical subjects, earning him the praise of ‘the pearl in Haarlem’s crown’ from his biographer Houbraken.2
1. H. Schneider, ‘Jan de Bray’s Portrait Works’ in The Burlington Magazine, London 1921, vol. XXXIX, no. 221, p. 67.
2. Arnold Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, The Hague 1976, p. 176.
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