Jan Lievens’s (1607-1674) artwork continued to be in Rembrandt’s mighty shadow for several centuries, up until the middle of nineteenth century when his work rediscovered for the benefit of art lovers.
“Young Man in a Beret” and several of his self- portraits are beautifully painted. I personally like his artwork, “The Portrait of Andriaen Trip” and “The Portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman,” the image of the first woman in Holland to attend university and one of the best educated women in Europe.
Observing his objective portraits, I realized why he was so popular and in demand in the circle of respectable patrons of his talent in his nature city of Liden, London, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hague and Berlin.
Lievens’s yearly portraits were courageously honest in painting the expressions of posers. His later painted portraits became more polished and were obvious attempts to adapt to please his adoring patrons.
It was interesting to compare the various techniques used among all of Lievens’s yearly self-portraits that were displayed. One of them (ca. 1629-1630) was printed on the exhibition advertisements.
In 1634 Jan Lievens returned to Amsterdam and his style was significantly changed. His portraits were now powerful influenced by the courtly style of Sir Anthony van Dyck. His landscapes show his study with both Rubens (1577-1640) and Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638).
In his amazingly powerful self-portrait of the early 1650s (The National Gallery, London), Lievens appeared in a red-golden eastern caftan or coat. He painted himself not only as a man enjoying his own life, but it was also clear to see that he felt respected and reassured, knowing that his talents had earned him a rightful place in the society. At the same time, he tried to bring viewers’ attention to his hardworking right hand.
Demand for Lievens’ portrait paintings was soaring in Amsterdam. One such case is that of the painting of “Sir Robert Kerr, First Earl of Ancram, 1654,” which Lievens painted in Amsterdam during the Earl’s years of exile after the execution of Charles I of Scotland in 1649. Jan Lievens brilliantly captured the mixture of regret and determination in Kerr’s delicate face. Kerr was a man of refined taste and his amazingly realistic depiction in the 1654 portrait painted by Lievens defined the painter as one of the best artists of his time.
It was interesting to examine his painting in which he effectively compared the features of aged and young bodies and faces of his sitters. He was really a master of painting aged patrons and models in the “Job in His Misery,” “Jacob Junius,” “Profile Head of Old Woman” (Rembrandt’s Mother) and “Head of an Old Man.”
I am especially fond of his paintings where he compared the aged and the youthful, such as “The Feast of Esther,” “Prince Charles Louis with His Tutor, as the Young Alexander Instructed by Aristotle” and “The Soothsayer,” in which an old Gypsy woman tells a young woman her fortune while a curiously incandescent, round-faced blond woman, kidnapped in childhood by gypsies, displays a capability for offbeat storytelling.
The Secretary of Prince Frederick Henry (1584-1647), an art connoisseur and famous courtier, Constantin Huygens (1596-1687), was a patron of both Rembrandt and Lievens. He tested them by competing their craft on the same themes.
Interestingly, what we now know is that many of Rembrandt’s early works were backdated to make them look like he was working ahead of Lievens or at least at the same time. The reasons for this are unknown, but perhaps he was envious of Lievens’s work or talent. In any case, he quickly learned tricks to imitate Lievens, and these tricks worked for centuries, resulting in obvious similarities between the works of the two, though not leaving to question that there are obvious differences as well.
The exhibition had a grand idea in displaying reproductions of some of Rembrandt’s well-known paintings next to Lievens’s original paintings such as “Christ on the Cross,” “Job in His Misery,” “The Raising of Lazarus,” and others.
One such case was Lievens’s “Abraham and Isaac before the Sacrifice,” in comparison to Rembrandt’s reproduction “The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God.” Lievens’s painting depicts not only a self-satisfied Isaac, but also a youth who eagerly wants to be the sacrifice that God demanded from his father. In Lievens’s view, the unbound Isaac was neither a victim nor a passive subject, but rather an active participant determined to fulfill God's will. He does not shield himself from the knife; rather, he welcomes it with outstretched and open arms.
"Raising of Lazarus" by Lievens is simply more touching than the version by his colleague. Maybe this was why Rembrandt acquired the painting and hung it above the fireplace in his home. My personal observation was that Rembrandt’s paintings seemed more emotional and lifelike than Lievens’s, though both artists were indisputable geniuses.
These paintings often observed the same themes and often competed, and this type of exhibit made it easy to compare between the artists.
After Lievens’s death two decades later, his name and artworks diminished from public eyes; however his large paintings and murals in churches and buildings, as well as his numerous works of art held in private collections and world famous museums did not disappear. Rather, they have been re-introduced, particularly in these three exhibitions that are now taking place.
Copyright © Rachel Madorsky