Jan de Bray (Haarlem c. 1627 - Amsterdam 1697)


oil on panel
23.2 x 18.1 cm (9⅛ x 7⅛ in)

Bacchus, or Dionysus in Greek mythology, is presented as a youthful male in this portrait by Jan de Bray. His luxuriant hair falls on his shoulders and a length of ivy is wrapped loosely around the crown of his head. His cheeks and lips are softly tinged pink and his young age is evident in the wispy beard and moustache he appears to be growing. His eyes are cast outside the picture space, perhaps indicating his intoxication, as he looks longingly at something unbeknown to the viewer.

Bacchus was the god of wine and drunken revelry, as well as inspirer of ritual madness and ecstasy. He was a major figure in Greek and Roman mythology and was one of the twelve Olympians. In Greek popular culture he was believed to preside over regular Dionysiac festivals, which were characterised by ritual license and revelry, including the reversal of social roles, cross-dressing by boys and men, drunkenness, widespread boisterousness and obscenity. This tradition was introduced in Ancient Rome as Bacchanalia in c.200 BC Initially only attended by women, these louche social gatherings gradually allowed the admittance of men. However, the rapid spread of the cult and suspicion that crime and political conspiracies were being discussed during these nocturnal meetings lead to the Senate decree in 186 BC, which suppressed these gatherings except in special circumstances.

No other deity is more frequently represented in ancient art than Dionysus or Bacchus. However, Bacchus and the subject of the Bacchanal were also richly represented in Renaissance and Baroque art as part of a voracious taste for pagan and classical iconography. Artists such as Caravaggio (1571-1610), and Rubens (1577-1640) indulged with considerable artistic licence when depicting the wild and mystic figure of Bacchus, and the extravagant ceremonies associated with this pagan god of excess.¹

Jan de Bray was a Dutch artist who spent virtually all of his life and career working in Haarlem, and was the city’s most important painter during the second half of the seventeenth century. He was a highly regarded portraitist, and over half of his output consists of individual portraits. De Bray is also known for his historical painting and portraits, or portrait historié.² Works of this type portrayed individuals in the guise of figures from the Bible, mythology, or ancient history and thus drew comparisons between the virtues of the sitters and the historical personalities. The sitters were contemporary individuals, patrons, and often members of the de Bray family and loved ones. It is also possible that the young man depicted in Bacchus was a person well known to de Bray, whom he then used as a model to represent the classical god.

J. W. von Moltke, who confirmed the work as by Jan de Bray in a letter to the previous owner also dated the painting to c. 1665. He goes on to compare it with two portraits of boys by Jan de Bray as well as to a signed portrait of a shepherd by the same hand.

¹ Rubens’ interpretation The Bacchanal, c.1618, is now held in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
² Among his finest works are two versions of the Banquet of Cleopatra (1652, Royal Collection; 1669, Currier Museum of Art, New Hampshire).