A New Dutch Treat

Jan Lievens’ Artistic Legacy in a New Light

Posted November 5, 2008 at 3:57pm

Sure, everybody knows about the famed 17th century artist Rembrandt van Rijn, the man widely considered to be one of the most talented Dutch painters of all time.

But even art lovers know little, or nothing at all, about his best friend, a largely forgotten former child prodigy whose eclectic body of work has long been

overshadowed by — and often mistaken for — that of Rembrandt.

An exhibition on the display at the National Gallery of Art, however, seeks to reintroduce the storied career of Jan Lievens to the world.

“I’m blown away by this,” said Arthur Wheelock, the gallery’s curator of northern Baroque painting, during a recent preview of the exhibit. “It’s an amazing artistic legacy, and I think this show will open a lot of eyes as to the amazing artist he was.”

Titled “Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered,” the exhibit features more than 130 Lievens pieces, including 54 paintings, 38 drawings and 39 prints.

Wheelock noted that the show, put together with the help of curators at the Milwaukee Art Museum, took years to come together because there has never been one central place to find Lievens’ works. Many of Lievens’ pieces have been mistaken for Rembrandt, meaning curators and art historians needed to work hard to prove Lievens was their true creator.

“We have amazing loans from all over the world,” Wheelock said. “Many of the paintings have been restored just for the show.”

Restoring Lievens’ rightful place as one of the leading artists of his time is the main goal of the exhibit.

Born in the culturally rich city of Leiden, Netherlands, in 1607, Lievens was a rising artistic star at age 12. By that time, he had already studied under the renowned history painter Pieter Lastman and had set up a studio in his parents’ home.

At 14, Lievens created “Old Woman Reading,” a detailed, boldly painted image of an older woman, likely his grandmother. Months later he painted “The Cardplayers,” a vibrant work showcasing the painful moment in a heated card game when a player realizes that he has lost.

The paintings offer a clear look at Lievens’ early style, which Wheelock described as “hormones gone wild.”

“You can see how bold and brash his handling of paint is,” Wheelock said. “You need space around them.”

It is in “The Cardplayers” (which was long inaccurately attributed to Gerrit van Honthorst, another Dutch artist) that Lievens first used his friend Rembrandt as a model. The tradition would continue over the next several years, as the duo lived near each other in Leiden and often studied together.

“They were buddies; they were pals,” Wheelock said. “They’re in each other’s paintings all the time.”

The duo also created portraits of each other, where “you see this sort of psychology working out between them,” Wheelock said.

Together, Lievens and Rembrandt are credited with developing the artist style known as “tronie,” a character study in which portraits aren’t so much about depicting people as exploring their facial expressions, their age and even their exotic dress. (One of Lievens most famous examples is “Bearded Man with a Beret,” a 1630 piece that is among the best preserved from that period.)

Still, there are differences between the two artists. Rembrandt’s pieces of religious subjects, for example, often stressed physical aspects, whereas Lievens were more spiritual, Wheelock said.

As the pair grew into men, their careers took different paths. In 1632, Lievens left for London, seeking work as a painter for the English court. Rembrandt, meanwhile, went to Amsterdam, Netherlands, where his career would continue to flourish.

In London, Lievens discovered Flemish master Anthony van Dyck and developed a more elegant style. But he floundered in the English capital and wouldn’t find his way again until a 1635 move to Antwerp, Belgium, where he created landscapes and large-scale pieces on religious subjects.

Among the most famous is “The Lamentation of Christ,” a 1640 piece that reflects van Dyck’s style and shows how much Lievens had grown from his earlier days. “The kid doing these hormone-charged paintings early on quickly shifts to a different world,” Wheelock said.

In 1644, Lievens moved to Amsterdam, where he earned a steady income painting portraits for Dutch political, business and cultural leaders. Many of his pieces remain in Amsterdam and were unable to be displayed in the exhibit because of their large size, Wheelock said.

Aside from his considerable talents as a painter, Lievens also proved to be a master printmaker. He often depicted landscapes, something that separates him from other Dutch painters of his time, as most were focused on painting people, Wheelock said.

“He’s an innovator all the way through,” Wheelock said. “He’s not stuck to one thing.”

Despite his wide range of works, Lievens lost his way at the end of his life. After the Netherlands were invaded by French and German forces in 1672, the art market dried up, and Lievens lost his fortune.

Like his friend Rembrandt, Lievens died in poverty. But while Rembrandt would become revered after his death, Lievens was all but forgotten.

Until now, anyway.

“Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered” runs through Jan. 11, 2009, at the National Gallery of Art.