Jan Lievens: Out of Rembrandt’s Shadow

A new exhibition re-establishes Lievens’ reputation as an old master, after centuries of being eclipsed by his friend and rival

The Feast of Esther, painted by Lievens c. 1625, was identified for years in 20th-century art texts as an early Rembrandt. Like Rembrandt, Lievens used contrasts of light and shadow to add drama. (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Purchased with Funds from the State of North Carolina)
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Telescopes trained on the night sky, astronomers observe the phenomenon of the binary star, which appears to the naked eye to be a single star but consists in fact of two, orbiting a common center of gravity. Sometimes, one star in the pair can so outshine the other that its companion may be detected only by the way its movement periodi­cally alters the brightness of the greater one.

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The binary stars we recognize in the firmament of art tend to be of equal brilliance: Raphael and Michelangelo, van Gogh and Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse. But the special case of an "invisible" companion is not unknown. Consider Jan Lievens, born in Leiden in western Holland on October 24, 1607, just 15 months after the birth of Rembrandt van Rijn, another Leiden native.

While the two were alive, admirers spoke of them in the same breath, and the comparisons were not always in Rembrandt's favor. After their deaths, Lievens dropped out of sight—for centuries. Though the artists took quite different paths, their biographies show many parallels. Both served apprenticeships in Amsterdam with the same master, returned to that city later in life and died there in their 60s. They knew each other, may have shared a studio in Leiden early on, definitely shared models and indeed modeled for each other. They painted on panels cut from the same oak tree, which suggests they made joint purchases of art supplies from the same vendor. They es­tablished the exotic, fancy-dress "Oriental" portrait as a genre unto itself and later showed the same unusual predilection for drawing on paper imported from the Far East.

The work the two produced in their early 20s in Leiden was not always easy to tell apart, and as time went on, many a superior Lievens was misattributed to Rembrandt. Quality aside, there are many reasons why one artist's star shines while another's fades. It mattered that Rembrandt spent virtually his entire career in one place, cultivating a single, highly personal style, whereas Lievens moved around, absorbing many different influences. Equally important, Rembrandt lent himself to the role of the lonely genius, a figure dear to the Romantics, whose preferences would shape the tastes of generations to come.

"I've often felt that Rembrandt tended to lead Lievens toward stronger observation, and Lievens, who seemed keener on current ideas in the Dutch art world, helped Rembrandt broaden his horizons," says Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Once the two artists leave Leiden, Lievens becomes a very different, more international but shallower figure on the London and Antwerp stages." By the 19th century, Lievens had fallen into such deep obscurity as to be lucky to be mentioned at all, even as a pupil of Rembrandt's, which he never was.

With the current tour of the new international retrospective "Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered," Lievens' induction to the pantheon of old masters may at last be at hand. From its opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. last fall, the show has moved on to the Milwaukee Art Museum (through April 26) and is scheduled to make a final stop at the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam (May 17-August 9).

While Lievens' name will be new to many, his work may not be. The sumptuous biblical spectacular The Feast of Esther, for instance, was last sold, in 1952, as an early Rembrandt, and was long identified as such in 20th-century textbooks. It is one of more than 130 works featured in the exhibition—from celebra­tions of the pleasures of the flesh to sober, meditative still lifes and the brooding Job in His Misery, which captures the frailty of old age compassionately yet unsen­timentally. In surrounding the all-too-human central figure of Job with images of a witch and hobgoblins, Lievens anticipates Goya. In The Raising of Lazarus, he stages the Gothic scene in a somber palette and with the utmost restraint—Jesus abstaining from grand gestures, Lazarus visible only as a pair of hands reaching skyward from the tomb. Like Rembrandt, Lievens uses pale, glimmering light to suffuse the darkness with intimations of spirituality.

These examples, in so many genres, are hardly the works of an also-ran. "We've always seen Lievens through the bright light of Rembrandt, as a pale reflection," says Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery. "This show lets you embrace Lievens from beginning to end, to understand that this man has his own trajectory and that he wasn't always in the gravity pull of Rembrandt." Wheelock has been particularly struck by the muscularity and boldness of Lievens, which is in marked contrast to most Dutch painting of the time. "The approach is much rougher, much more aggressive," he says. "Lievens was not a shy guy with paint. He manipulates it, he scratches it. He gives it a really physical presence."

Though the Leiden public of Lievens' youth had a high regard for the fine arts, the beacon for any seriously ambitious artist was Amsterdam. Lievens was duly sent there by his father at the tender age of 10 to study with the painter Pieter Lastman, grand master of complex narrative scenes taken from ancient history, classical mythology and the Bible. Still a boy when he returned to Leiden two years later, Lievens lost no time establishing a studio in his family home. The date of his Old Woman Reading is uncertain, as is his chronology in general, but scholars place it somewhere between 1621 and 1623, meaning he was just 14 to 16 years old when he painted it. It is a performance of amazing pre­cociousness, as remarkable for the thoughtful expression on the wrinkled face (possibly his grandmother's) as for the effortless depiction of such details as the lenses of her spectacles and the fur of her wrap.

Throughout his early period in Leiden, Lievens worked in a style that was brash and bold: his paintings were on a grand scale, the lighting theatrical, the figures larger than life. In many of these respects, he seems less the disciple of Lastman than of one of the Dutch followers of the revolutionary Italian painter Caravaggio. Dubbed Caravaggisti, these artists had recently returned north from a long stay in Rome and were active in nearby Utrecht. Scholars have yet to discover when and how Lievens fell under the Caravaggisti's spell, but his pictures, with their sharp contrasts of light and dark, expressive gestures and flair for drama, leave little doubt that he did.


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