Bray, Dirck de

(Haarlem 1635 - 1694 Goch)

Still Life of a Basket of Flowers on a Marble Ledge

Oil on panel
56 x 48 cm
Signed and dated

Still Life of a Basket of Flowers on a Marble Ledge


A wicker basket containing a simple assortment of flowers is placed on a ledge of
Italian marble over which other flowers are strewn. The freely painted petals loom up
from the background which is mysteriously shrouded in shadow. A stark chiaroscuro
with tempered light illuminates the fragile flowers. The sort of light is typical for a

cloudy day. Pale spots of shadow on the marble and on the white petal of the trumpet-
shaped field bindweed (convolvulus arvensis) suggest clouds moving before the sun, a

marvellously observed detail that enforces the impression of fleeting time and the
momentary character of the image.

Dirck was born into an artistically gifted family. His father Salomon de Braij (1597-
1664) was one of Haarlem’s leading history painters, an important architect,
theoretician, urban planner and poet. He trained Dirck’s eldest brother Jan (1626/27-
1697) as an oil painter and draughtsman. Jan himself made a flourishing career as a
history and portrait artist in his native Haarlem. Salomon also taught another brother,
Joseph (c. 1634-1664), who was initially active as a draughtsman in his father’s studio,
making ricordi of the latter’s painted works. In 1664 the plague struck Haarlem and
killed the entire De Braij family except for Jan and Dirck. By this time, Joseph had also
created a small oeuvre of innovative still lifes, among them two flower pieces. These are
nowadays noted for their originality and naturalness.

The present meditative picture is Dirck de Braij’s earliest oil painting. There is nothing
to prepare us for this dazzling work. Dirck had begun his career as a book binder with
the book printer Passchier van Wesbusch II and was then primarily active as a letter
designer and illustrator for the book printers Pieter and Abraham Casteleyn. He joined
the Haarlem guild of Saint Luke in 1658, but probably as a graphic artist; he was a
skilled woodcutter and etcher. It is only just after Joseph’s untimely death that Dirck
suddenly emerged as a full-fledged and talented still life painter. Because our painting
closely adheres to the just-mentioned flower still lifes by his brother, Fred Meijer has
argued that Dirck may have completed an unfinished work by Joseph (see literature). He
even mentions the possibility of the DBray signature’s having been adapted from his
brother’s earlier signature: Josepho. However, there is a marked difference between the
handling of Dirck’s and Joseph’s still lifes, the latter displaying more careful and less
vigorous brushwork.

Our still life is one of only seven flower pieces by Dirck. All of them are dated, as is the
case with many paintings and drawings by members of the De Braij family; the habit
was initiated by Salomon who even dated his drawings with the full date, even to the
day. Dirck’s other flower still pieces were painted in the 1670s and 1680s. No less than
three flower still lifes are preserved from 1671, one of which is in the Los Angeles
County Museum. Two others, both in private collections, sport a similar marble ledge as
our painting. Dirck’s professional life as an artist stopped in around 1680 when he
joined the Gaesdonck Monastery just over the Dutch-German border; he took his vows
on 12 October 1681 as a lay brother. From this final episode of his life only one
mediocre still life has been preserved.

Just like Joseph’s flower still lifes, those by Dirck are unconventional. Other Dutch or
Flemish flower painters selected species of flowers that bloom in different seasons and incorporated them into carefully balanced compositions. Meijer thinks that Joseph and
Dirck drew flowers from life and then painted them, although no preparatory drawing
has come to light yet. Given his loose handling it is still possible that Dirck painted
quickly enough to portray flowers from life directly in oil. In addition, to field
bindweed, we see white autumn crocus (colchicum autumnale) and sunflower, all of
which bloom late in summer so the painting could have been executed in September.

Dirck’s still lifes also stand out because of their seemingly haphazard arrangement. In
this they resemble nineteenth-century French still life painters such as Philippe
Rousseau (1816-87) and Antoine Vollon (1833-1900), or even Edouard Manet (1832-
83). Obviously, these artists were unaware of Dirck’s extremely rare still lifes which
were only rediscovered in more recent times. At present, Dirck’s talents are fully
acknowledged. In his review, published in The Burlington Magazine, of the exhibition
on the De Braij family in Haarlem and London the noted scholar and connoisseur Albert
Blankert calls them ‘among the best and most original in seventeenth-century Dutch
painting’. The Mauritshuis purchased a flower still life by his hand in 2012.

R. Gibson, Flower Painting, Oxford 1976, p. 9, reproduced fig. 15
F.G. Meijer, “Joseph and Dirck de Bray, Painters of still lifes,” in P. Biesboer (ed.),
Painting family: the De Brays, masters of 17th-century Holland, exh. cat. Haarlem
(Frans Hals Museum); London (Dulwich Picture Gallery), 2008, p. 31, reproduced fig.
27 (as Dirck de Bray [and Joseph de Bray?])
E. Gordenker, ‘‘Still life of a bouquet in the making’ by Dirck de Bray: a new
acquisition at the Mauritshuis, The Hague’, Burlington Magazine 154 (2012), p. 102

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