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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As an artist, Lievens never stopped assimilating new influ­ences, which made his own style less distinctive as time went on. But even if he made his mark most memorably as the brash Young Turk of his Leiden days, he never lost his capacity to surprise. In the current show, two scenes of lowlife from his Antwerp period (A Greedy Couple Surprised by Death and Fighting Cardplayers and Death) explode with verve and violence. In a different vein, Gideon's Sacrifice shows an angel gently touching the tip of his wand to an altar to ignite a sacrificial flame. Long lost, the painting resurfaced on the art market in Rome in 1995, attributed to a lesser artist of the Italian Renaissance. Now it is given to Lievens as a work of the early 1650s—an ingenious combination of elements from various periods of his career. No longer invisible, Rembrandt's companion star is shining with a luster all its own.

Matthew Gurewitsch's articles on culture and the arts appear frequently in the New York Times and Smithsonian.


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