What drew you to this story? Can you describe its genesis?
The trigger was the retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington. I was intrigued that the work of a forgotten artist had been partly “assimilated” into the Rembrandt canon. To be mistaken for Rembrandt would be an indication of real merit, no? Yet as an independent artist, Lievens disappeared. There had to be a story here.
What surprised you the most while covering Lievens?
His versatility—and his continuing curiosity about media that were new to him, even if they were long out of fashion.
What was your favorite moment during your reporting?
Getting into the gallery and discovering that all these paintings I had studied in the catalogue were not only as exciting as I had imagined but significantly more so. As a writer you sometimes get nervous that you've let your commitment to a story run away with your judgment. You always need those reality checks.
Were there any interesting moments that didn’t make it to the final draft?
Lots. It would have made dull reading to go on about Lievens's corkscrew squiggles, for instance—but he uses this type of line to show moving water, for leaves, for various other things, and in many media... It's like a secret signature.
Even though he was popular for much of his career and tried adapting his style to suit changing tastes, how did Lievens fall out of public consciousness and into obscurity?
Think of it this way: he didn't create a brand. Though scholars now can detect a "shape" to his career, he eventually chose to focus less on "making a statement"—as he had done as a very young man—than on satisfying clients who already knew exactly what sort of thing they wanted. In the end, he was more concerned with technique than possessed by a vision. But vision is what an artist is remembered for most of all.