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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In the mid-1620s, Rembrandt, too, headed to Amsterdam to apprentice with Lastman. Six months later, he came home, and from then on, the two young artists likely viewed themselves as equals if not rivals. Rembrandt must have felt a twinge of envy in the winter of 1631-32 when the Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck painted Lievens' portrait and not Rembrandt's. To make matters worse, that likeness later appeared, engraved, in Van Dyck's Iconography, a who's who of celebrities of the art world.

Lievens painted The Feast of Esther around 1625, about the time Rembrandt returned to Leiden. It is approximately four and a half by five and a half feet, with figures shown three-quarter length, close to the picture plane. (At that time, Rembrandt favored smaller formats.) At the luminous center of the composition, a pale Queen Esther points an accusing finger at Haman, the royal councilor who is plotting to exterminate her people. Her husband, the Persian King Ahasuerus, shares her light, his craggy face set off by a snowy turban and a mantle of gold brocade. Seen from behind, in shadowy profile, Haman is silhouetted against shimmering white drapery, his right hand flying up in dismay.

Silks, satins and brocades, elegant plumes and gemstones—details like these give Lievens ample scope to show off his flashy handling of his medium. Not for him the fastidious, enamel-smooth surfaces of the Leiden Fijnschilders—"fine painters," in whose meticulously rendered oils every brush stroke disappeared. Lievens reveled in the thickness of the paint and the way it could be shaped and scratched and swirled with a brush, even with the sharp end of a handle. This tactile quality is one of Rembrandt's hallmarks as well; there are now those who think he picked it up from Lievens.

Close in time and manner to The Feast of Esther is Lievens' Pilate Washing His Hands. The young man pouring the cleansing waters from a golden pitcher resembles Rembrandt's youthful self-portraits closely enough to suggest that Rembrandt was in fact the model. The highlights that play over the gold are mesmerizing, and the glaze of the water as it flows over Pilate's hand is as true to life as a photograph. But above all, one is transfixed by Pilate, who looks the viewer straight in the eye, which Rembrandt's figures seldom, if ever, do.

The earliest known comparison of Lievens and Rembrandt comes down to us in a memoir by the Dutch statesman and patron of native talent Constantijn Huygens. Written around 1630, it described an encounter with the two artists, then in their early 20s: "Considering their parentage, there is no stronger evidence against the belief that nobility is in the blood....One of our two youths [Lievens] was the son of a commoner, an embroiderer, the other [Rembrandt], a miller's son....I venture to suggest offhand that Rembrandt is superior to Lievens in his sure touch and liveliness of emotions. Conversely, Lievens is the greater in inventiveness and audacious themes and forms. Everything his young spirit endeavors to capture must be magnificent and lofty....He has an acute and profound insight into all manner of things....My only objection is his stubbornness, which derives from an excess of self-confidence. He either roundly rejects all criticism or, if he acknowledges its validity, takes it in bad spirit."

At their first meeting, Lievens expressed a desire to paint Huygens' portrait, and Huygens invited him to visit The Hague, then the Dutch capital, for that purpose. For years to come, the statesman would be a steadfast Lievens supporter, throwing several court­ly commissions his way.

Around 1632, Rembrandt relocated to Amsterdam for good, while Lievens struck out for London, hoping for work at the court of King Charles I. He apparently did several portraits, now lost, of the royal family, including one of the king. About three years later, he left London for Antwerp, where he found a congenial artistic community, busied himself making prints and drawings, taught himself to do woodcuts and undertook various commissions for Jesuit churches. In Antwerp he married Susanna Colijns de Nole, a Catholic and the daughter of a noted sculptor who had worked with the Jesuits. Lievens may have converted to her religion at that time, less for reasons of faith than as a career move. The couple had a son, Jan Andrea, who grew up to be a painter and, on at least one occasion, his father's collaborator.

In 1644 Lievens moved on again, showing up over the next years in Amsterdam, The Hague and Leiden, as opportunities arose. At last, his lifelong dream of a career creating large-scale extravaganzas for princely dwellings was coming true. Widowed shortly after his return to the Netherlands, Lievens married Cornelia de Bray, the daughter of an Amsterdam notary, in 1648.

After Lievens' departure for England, the bold style of his early work had largely fallen from favor with Dutch government officials and the fashionable clientele at court. They now preferred the more polished Italianate manner practiced by Van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, painter to the most illustrious crowned heads of Europe. Rembrandt continued to hone his darkling style, which may have cost him business. But the pragmatic Lievens did his best to move with the times, adapting his style to satisfy many patrons.

Coincidentally, both Rembrandt and Lievens wound up living along an Amsterdam canal called the Rozengracht during their final years. Rembrandt by this time was reduced effectively to working for room and board—his common-law wife and Titus, his only surviving son, had taken control of his finances. Lievens ended up in sad straits, too. Though demand for his work remained strong, financial mismanage­ment had left him deep in debt.


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