Why do some artists remain in the limelight for centuries while others fade into the darkness of the past?
“Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered” at the National Gallery of Art suggests that an itinerant career marked by divergent styles may be the reason behind the obscurity of this creative talent.
The exciting survey reassesses the paintings, drawings and prints by a Rembrandt colleague to show how his varied works rival those of the better-known 17th-century Dutch artist. It throws Rembrandt’s originality into question by revealing the ways in which Lievens influenced his colleague in vision and technique.
The lesser-known artist didn’t have an identifiable signature, preferring to adapt his expression to the subject at hand. He went from rendering bawdy genre scenes in thick layers of paint to highlighting religious allegories in chiaroscuro. He sketched wooded landscapes and made prints depicting statesmen, poets and clergymen.
Lievens particularly excelled at portraits of the young and old, including character studies of eccentric types known as “tronies.” A gallery full of luminously painted heads on dark backgrounds, including the artist’s own romantic likeness, is the highlight of the show.
The sheer variety of expressions in the exhibit makes a convincing case for Lievens as a virtuoso willing to take risks. It earned the artist international fame in his day, but in the centuries after his death, many of his diverse works were mistakenly attributed to Rembrandt and others.
Setting the record straight required intensive detective work on the part of the curators who rediscovered pieces by Lievens in storage and re-evaluated known works from private and museum collections. Even the National Gallery’s sketch of an old man, which was featured in the museum’s 2006 exhibit of Rembrandt drawings, has been reclassified as a work by Lievens.
The similarities between the works by the two Dutch artists are understandable, given they both studied in Amsterdam with history painter Pieter Lastman. They began their careers in Leiden at the same time and might have shared a studio in the 1620s.
Born in 1607, Lievens was a year younger than Rembrandt and showed his promise at an earlier age. It’s hard to believe that the first work in the exhibit, a soulful portrait of an old woman reading, was painted when he was 14.
Lievens used his friend Rembrandt as a model for several paintings completed during this colorful, early phase. “The Cardplayers,” the “Lute Player,” and “Pilate Washing His Hands” all feature the soft, fleshy face of the older artist.
Rembrandt, in turn, appreciated Lievens, emulating his style in etchings and paintings. He so admired his friend’s treatment of “The Raising of Lazarus” with its ghostly upraised hands that he hung the canvas above the fireplace mantel in his home.
After meeting the two Leiden artists in 1628, the statesman and arts patron Constantijn Huygens, whose pensive portrait is part of the show, well described their respective skills: “Rembrandt is superior to Lievens in his sure touch and liveliness of emotion. Conversely, Lievens is the greater in inventiveness in audacious themes and forms.”
In 1632, the two artists parted ways: Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and Lievens headed for London to work in the studio of Anthony van Dyck, court painter for Charles I. Only a couple of prints from this sojourn abroad survive, including a startlingly realistic portrait of a balding old man.
After three years in England, Lievens traveled to Antwerp where he soaked up influences from Flemish masters such as Peter Paul Rubens to create large-scale religious paintings for the Jesuits.
He befriended genre and still-life painters, including Adriaen Brouwer, whose death from the plague in 1638 may have inspired Lievens to compose two of his most unusual paintings. In these scenes of a greedy couple and fighting card players, skeletons interrupt the action to warn of the grim reaper’s inopportune arrival.
In 1644, the Dutch artist settled in Amsterdam, where he was awarded prestigious civic and court commissions. One of these was a grand painting for the city’s town hall that still remains in place.
It is represented in the exhibit by a dark, smudgy oil sketch from 1660 celebrating the revolt of Dutch ancestors called the Batavians against the ancient Romans. Rembrandt also painted such a symbolic scene for the building, but his work was rejected and returned.
Lievens, in contrast, enjoyed more success until his later years, when he suffered financial ruin and died in poverty in 1674. A self-portrait from the 1650s shows the artist lounging in a shimmering robe, still on top of his game.
His restless travels had exposed him to the latest artistic trends from masters such as Caravaggio, Titian and Van Dyke that were absorbed into restrained portraits and moody landscapes for the wealthy.
Lievens would often try out his ideas for paintings in drawings and prints. A section devoted to his ink sketches, etchings and engravings evidences an assured fluidity and willingness to experiment. He was particularly adept at woodcut prints, a medium Rembrandt never touched.
Portraiture was Lievens’ true specialty and the show ends with several stunning likenesses. Artist Anna Maria van Schurman, the first woman to attend a university in the Netherlands, engages the viewer with a frank, intelligent gaze.
Gaunt cheeks and piercing eyes transform English earl Robert Kerr into a wily sage. The earl had long admired Lievens’ skills, having known his work from his days as a diplomat in The Hague.
Writing to his son, he recognized the artist’s abilities as well as his huge ego: “He has so high conceit of himself that he thinks there is none to be compared with him in all Germany, Holland, nor the rest of 17 provinces.”
This fascinating exhibit proves that Lievens had every reason to be confident in his enormous talent.
WHEN YOU GO
WHAT: Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday through Jan. 11
WEB SITE: www.nga.gov