Art Review Archives:
Jan Lievens: Out of Rembrandt's Shadow
Milwaukee Art Museum
The life and work of Dutch master Jan Lievens (1607-1674) have only recently been rescued from obscurity. His paintings have been valued anew for their freshness and mastery evident, and most importantly, separated from long attribution to another and more well-known master -- Rembrandt van Rijn, who became the name most associated with the golden age of Dutch 17th-century art. The story of Lievens and Rembrandt is an entwining of two great painters and the ways in which fame treated them both. It is on view now in works by Lievens assembled for the first time as Jan Lievens: Out of Rembrandt's Shadow, a splendor of oil paintings, drawings and prints at the Milwaukee Art Museum through April 26, 2009.
Jan Lievens is an exhibition which neatly balances its twin interests, permitting the full measure of Lievens' work to come through while also exploring the enticing connection between the two painters. The works on exhibit are by Lievens, including 45 paintings, a section devoted to his landscape drawings, and several prints (select Rembrandt images, mostly in reproduction, are included to illustrate parallels). At the same time, the wall texts and audio tour point out the direct relationships between the paintings of Lievens and Rembrandt, enhancing an understanding of the way each influenced the other.
Lievens and Rembrandt van Rijn were born a year apart in their native Leiden, a town in the Dutch republic. They were two young men of high talent, sharing the same ambition and studying under the same teacher, Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, albeit at separate times. In the late 1620s they came together as both comrades and rivals, swapping techniques and competing for desirable commissions and the attention of patrons. Lievens was the younger of the two and had been the first to come to painting. Apprenticed at the age of eight, his paintings were sought after by the time he was 12. Old Woman Reading, the earliest painting on view, dates to 1621, when Lievens was 14. It reveals his command even then of the complexity of Dutch 17th-century painting with all its demands for the realism of wrinkled skin, the textures of velvet and fur, and an evocation of the personality of the sitter.
By the mid-1620s Lievens' experimentation joined that of Rembrandt as the two began to directly influence one another. Each strove to outdo the other in expressions of texture, drama, and psychological study. Examination of Lievens' paintings shows that he may actually have pioneered some of the painterly innovations long attributed to Rembrandt.
Among the most intriguing aspects of Jan Lievens is that Lievens' close vantage point to Rembrandt has left glimpses of his friend and artistic associate, including the earliest known work to feature Rembrandt's image. In The Cardplayers, painted around 1623-4, the model for the central figure has been identified as Rembrandt, seen here as a self-assured fellow with plump features and an easy grin. Lievens further employed Rembrandt as a model in the bawdy Youth Embracing a Woman (ca. 1627-8) and as the sitter in Lute Player (ca. 1627, revised ca. 1628). In 1629 he painted an actual portrait of Rembrandt, a pale, serious youth in a metal gorget and brown cape. He looks out on the world with bright and assured eye, and yet, with an indefinable quality of reserve.
To the innumerable self-portraits in oil and print that Rembrandt himself has left behind, these rare glimpses add a further dimension. Rembrandt's own self-portraits emphasize a stylish and psychologically daring personality, a bold and raking presentation of the artist seeing himself as he wishes to be. Lievens' portraits hint at a quality of reticence not normally seen in Rembrandt's images, the sitter a touch less sure of himself than he might wish. Which is the truth? Both, perhaps. That each artist likely romanticized himself in his autobiographical portraiture is evident in Lievens' own Self-portrait, painted in 1629-30 and showing him as a handsome young man with an intent gaze and a romantic tumble of long brown hair.
The attentiveness of the Dutch royal court to both painters is thought to have encouraged the rivalry between Lievens and Rembrandt during this time. Even without such enticement, each is likely to have challenged the other. When one explored a theme, the other quickly picked it up, adding his own variations and interpretation. Samson & Delilah as painted by Lievens around 1628 is an effusion of miraculous colors and delicacy of flesh-tones and silks. At the same time it skillfully balances its three characters in a crescendo of building movement, leading the eye upward from the limp form of the sleeping Samson, through the scissors being offered by an intent Delilah, to the servant's surprise and upflung gesture of refusal. Rembrandt's version, painted 1629 or 1630, is included in a small reproduction for comparison. In Rembrandt's depiction the composition is static, the moment forced back into a psychological depth and stillness. Both use shadow, dark ochre tones in the background, and each portrays Samson, Delilah and servant. The difference between their handling of the images, done only a year or so apart and with knowledge of the other's composition, is insightful.
That comparison is also possible in The Raising of Lazarus, which Rembrandt painted about 1630, Lievens a year or so later. That their styles were so similar at the time was part of the long confusion of Lievens' work with Rembrandt's, causing the attribution of many paintings to Rembrandt which only recently have been identified as being by Lievens. Here, the compositions are a curious half-mirror of one another. Lievens captures a scene in darkness, the emotion of the moment embodied in the pale banner of drapery that rises to fill the right half of the painting. It balances in its drama the prayerful Christ and the feeble hands of Lazarus, stretching upward in ghastly transparency from the heavy horizontal weight of the tomb. Rembrandt had already set up the equation, as it were: figures to one side, the summoning Christ alight with wonder and intensity, the swaying figure rising from the tomb. Lievens responded with his own interpretation. Both use similar tonalities. Rembrandt places his focus on the electric moment of summoning, Lievens on the prayerful Christ.
In his book Rembrandt's Eyes, Simon Schama argues convincingly that Rembrandt's ambition was driven by a desire to 'be' Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), a Flemish painter who was not only a sophisticated courtier and diplomatic envoy but one of the most sought-after artists in Europe. If, as Schama maintains, Rembrandt wanted to be Rubens, then by all appearances in his range of works, Lievens wanted to be everyone. The rich Biblical scenes, lavish portraits, bawdy genre scenes, landscape drawings, engravings and woodcuts on exhibit here all show the flexible styles that Lievens could adapt, indeed strove purposely to adapt in his efforts to become a sought-after court painter. A diverse range of paintings and prints are included from this prolific period. They include the monumental painting Job (1631), the remarkable conception of an aged Mary in The Penitent Magdalene (ca. 1631), and Christ on the Cross (1631).
In 1632 each artist left Leiden for bigger and better things. Rembrandt went to Amsterdam, the Netherlands' most cosmopolitan city and artistic center. Lievens left for London, joining the court of Charles I and painting alongside Anthony van Dyck, the leading court painter. A few years later, perhaps because his star was overshadowed by van Dyck, he shifted to the artistic community in Antwerp. The Lamentation of Christ (ca. 1640) is among the many of Lievens' masterworks from this time, showing him painting in the van Dyck style. A further section devoted to Lievens' drawings reveals his capacity to capture delectable little images of tree, forest, and bucolic rest.
In 1644 Lievens moved to Amsterdam, where Rembrandt had reigned supreme but was already on the wane. In terms of fashion -- what the patrons wanted -- the elder artist was already a little out of date, beginning to retreat into his own personal vision of shadowy tones and ever rougher impasto brushstrokes. Lievens, on the other hand, could paint with all the cultivated delicacy of a cultured court painter in the most desired styles and finish. With his references and contacts, but primarily with the sleek style he'd adopted from van Dyck and which was all the rage at the time, he settled in as a successful society painter. The Portrait of Adriaen Trip (1644) has never before been exhibited. That Lievens was chosen as the portraitist for this young gentleman of good family signals the desirability of his style. The crisply executed Jacob Junius (1658) is a further example of the artist at his height. A self-portrait by Lievens, painted in the 1650s, shows him adopting the dress of the Flemish court, ever seeking to show himself as being in touch with the latest fashions.
In the end, both artists were destined to share a similar fate. The Dutch art market began to suffer significantly in a poor economic climate. Rembrandt had already sunk into deep financial trouble as his popularity waned. Lievens too was undercut by the market failure, also falling out of fashion. He died in poverty. That his painting, ever restless, had hovered among options rather than settling on a signature style is one reason given as to why his work never received posthumous recognition.
Fate and history dealt them different cards. The work of Rembrandt van Rijn was raised to the highest artistic stature; no text of art's history is without him. The paintings of Jan Lievens were to descend into an undeserved obscurity, as shadowed as the chiaroscuro effects that lent such drama to his paintings. Now rediscovered, a rich body Lievens' work is assembled here.
Known and unknown masters, each complements the other. Without Lievens as fellow-innovator and rival, who can say whether Rembrandt would have become the artist he did. And without Rembrandt, Lievens too might never have been spurred in his ambitions. In Jan Lievens is presented a double opportunity, first to explore the paintings of this brilliant Dutch master for their own sake, second to observe the ways in which his work expands on an understanding of Rembrandt's, and to muse on the ways of rivalry, posterity, and the nature of art of enduring value.
Jan Lievens: Out of Rembrandt's Shadow is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam. A full-color scholarly catalogue, Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered, accompanies. The exhibition is at the Milwaukee Art Museum through April 26, 2009.
--Katherine R. Lieber
Editorial Note: Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through ArtScope.net's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above. Simon Schama's Rembrandt's Eyes (Knopf: 2001) was previously reviewed by ArtScope.net (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/rembrandtseyes1102.shtml).