A Dutch Master Rediscovered

A Dutch Master Rediscovered
Jan Lievens (1607–1674) was a daring and innovative painter, draftsman, and printmaker. He created a wide range of works, including portraits, landscapes, genre scenes, and religious and allegorical images, that were highly valued by his contemporaries. A child prodigy, Lievens astounded art lovers with the skillful paintings he was already executing at the age of fourteen. During the formative period of his career, the boldness of his vision and brushwork rivaled that of his colleague Rembrandt van Rijn, who was a year older. Indeed, Lievens was in many respects the initiator of artistic developments that characterized the two men’s works in the late 1620s. In subsequent decades, Lievens achieved the international fame that had always been his ambition.

While Lievens enjoyed great artistic success in his lifetime, his posthumous reputation has never risen to a commensurate level. His peripatetic career and wide range of styles, together with the erroneous attribution of many of his best paintings to other artists, Rembrandt among them, obscured his considerable accomplishments. This exhibition, which brings together paintings, prints, and drawings from all stages of Lievens’ career, including a number of recently rediscovered works, presents a reassessment of his artistic contributions.

Jan Lievens, Self-Portrait, ca. 1629–1630
Oil on panel. Private collection.

The directness of this handsome self-portrait conveys the full effect of Lievens’ forthright personality. X-radiographs of the painting suggest that Lievens revised his appearance in deliberate ways. For example, he added flowing locks, popular in English and Flemish courts, and eliminated a hat, probably a painter’s beret. In portraying himself as a dashing, even aristocratic young man Lievens may have looked forward to his move to London to work at the court of King Charles I in 1632.

Lievens’ Career
Lievens began his career in Leiden at the beginning of the 1620s, after studying in Amsterdam with the history painter Pieter Lastman. Lievens’ bold, early style, which is characterized by thick impastos and dramatic effects of light and dark, reflects the added influence of Dutch artists from Utrecht who had studied the work of Caravaggio in Italy. During the late 1620s, Lievens and his Leiden colleague Rembrandt van Rijn had a close relationship, and often depicted similar subjects and worked in similar styles in their paintings, drawings, and etchings. Contemporary critics, including Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Prince of Orange, recognized both artists’ precocious abilities. On Huygen’s recommendation, several aristocratic patrons in The Hague had their portraits painted by Lievens.

Aspiring to become an internationally renowned court artist, Lievens left Leiden for London in 1632 to work at the court of Charles I, king of England. There, he came under the influence of Anthony van Dyck and developed an elegant, refined manner for rendering portraits. In 1635 he moved to Antwerp, where he painted genre scenes and landscapes, as well as large-scale religious subjects for the Jesuits. In 1644 Lievens relocated yet again, this time to Amsterdam, where his sophisticated international style of painting was greatly admired. He received many major commissions, including paintings for the Amsterdam town hall. Dutch political, business, and cultural leaders sat for his portraits and avidly collected his landscape paintings and drawings. Despite his achievements, Lievens faced financial difficulties at the end of his life, and he died in poverty.

Jan Lievens, Prince Charles Louis with His Tutor, as the Young Alexander Instructed by Aristotle, 1631
Oil on canvas. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Lievens and the Utrecht Caravaggisti
In the early 1620s, Lievens was influenced by a group of artists now known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti. These Dutch artists, including Gerrit van Honthorst and Hendrick ter Brugghen, began to paint dramatically lit compositions with tightly cropped figures after encountering the revolutionary style of Caravaggio (1571–1610) during their studies in Rome. Their fresh, innovative depictions of card players, musicians, revelers, and religious subjects received high acclaim in the Netherlands. Lievens was among the first to adopt their bold aesthetic, perhaps because he had gone to Utrecht sometime after completing his studies in Amsterdam and had seen their works firsthand.

Jan Lievens, Man in Oriental Costume (“Sultan Soliman”), ca. 1629–1631
Oil on canvas. Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg.

Paintings on figures bedecked in regal, Eastern-inspired garments, set against a plain background—known as “Orientals”—began as an independent artistic genre around the 1620s in the work of Lievens and Rembrandt.
Lievens probably painted this canvas to impress the court at The Hague, where such opulence was in fashion.

  • 11-2-2009

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