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Digesting de Bray's Priceless Pearl

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page C01

This is a story about two pearl earrings. Both of them are huge, and obviously expensive. Both of them appear in 17th-century Dutch paintings. One is famous, one is not. In a way they make a pair.

The most famous pearl in all of Holland's art must be the giant jewel that hangs from the left ear of Johannes Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring." The other one is found in a less familiar picture, Jan de Bray's "Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra," now on view in Washington. That canvas, here on loan from the Currier Museum of Art of Manchester, N.H., is the centerpiece of "Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition," a one-room exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

Jan de Bray's "Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra" is the centerpiece of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (Currier Museum Of Art)

Vermeer's moist-mouthed figure turns to meet your glance. Her beauty is riveting. She seems to look at you alone. Because of her loveliness, which is transporting, and because of Tracy Chevalier's novel "Girl With a Pearl Earring," which has sold more than 2 million copies, and because of the movie that was made from it in 2003, Vermeer's portrait is as widely known, and as widely loved, as any single piece of 17th-century Dutch art.

Johannes Vermeer of Delft (1632-1675) painted "Girl With a Pearl Earring" in 1666. Jan de Bray of Haarlem (1627-1697) finished his big banquet scene (it shows 12 figures, not one) in 1669. Different though they are, these two elusive pictures cast light on one another. Both ask to be decoded. Both evoke the East. Both pivot on their pearls.

In both of these Dutch pictures the scanning eye is offered sharp particularities -- the gleam of light on glass or brass, the shimmer of blue silk, the nap of knotted wool. But the mind is offered more. Both old paintings broadcast the sort of insubstantial messages, warnings and reminders that almost always hide among the eye-entrancing details of 17th-century Dutch art.

The de Bray has a plot. His picture illustrates a tale of competitive excess. The art buyers of Holland, people well versed in extravagance, knew the story well.

Antony and Cleopatra have made a wager. Which of the two lovers -- the mighty Roman general or the haughty queen of Egypt -- will offer to the other the most expensive feast?

In the painting by de Bray, Antony is the guest. He looks disappointed. Understandably. Pork is on the menu, but he doesn't get a chop, just a roasted pig's head complete with snout and ears, which comes without a sauce. His gesture asks a question, "Is this all I get?"

Then Cleopatra bests him.

She plucks off her vast pearl. She pounds it into pieces. (Hence the mortar and the pestle.) She dissolves the pearl in vinegar and drinks it at a gulp.

Her pearl is not just any pearl. Writing in the 1st century, Pliny the Elder, a main source for the story, calls it "the largest in the whole of history." It was worth, he wrote, "100,000 sesterces." Others claim its value was that of "15 countries."

Cleopatra was Egyptian. She was certainly no Christian. But her gesture is enhanced by a Biblical allusion: Jesus, in Matthew, compares the prospect of salvation to "the pearl of great price."

De Bray's Cleopatra, as you may have noticed, is somewhat less than gorgeous. Also, come to think of it, the gray-haired fellow next to her looks a little old for hot-blooded Marc Antony. That's because the painting depicts more than a scene from classical antiquity. It is a memorial painting, too.

Cleopatra is the painter's mother, Anna Westerbaen. Antony is his father, Salomon de Bray. The children at the table are members of the family. Jan de Bray himself, his head wreathed in peacock plumes, stands alone at the far left.

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