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Two large Rembrandt reproductions hung on the wall of my grandmother’s guest room. Pains had been taken to make them look authentic. They were elaborately framed and printed on an expensive polymer scuffed to suggest craquelure. The figure on the left, robed and beturbanned, looked so much like my grandmother that I must have been in my teens before I realized it wasn’t her. On the right was a melancholic old man in a splendid golden helmet.
Unlike a large sculpture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that loomed horrifyingly in a country inn where I sometimes stayed with my family, the pair of reproductions was no scarier than the pictures of my relatives hanging on the same wall, familiar guardians watching over me as I slept. Only when I learned more about them did they become exotic. The figure who looked like my grandmother became grander: he turned out to be the famous painter himself.
I don’t remember when I learned that the man in the golden helmet was not only not Rembrandt, he wasn’t even by Rembrandt. I do remember my vague disappointment, though in retrospect it is hard to describe what there was to be disappointed about. It was the exact same painting. Why did the knowledge that it was painted by someone other than Rembrandt make the shine in the old man’s helmet so much less splendid?
It was an instinctual reaction. Nobody had explained to me that a precise catalog of an artist’s works is essential to scholarship: if, three hundred years from now, Henrik Ibsen is believed to have written Valley of the Dolls, it will be hard to form an accurate assessment of his oeuvre. Nor did I care whether the demotion of the artist put the portrait of the old man on the wrong side of the same financial gulf that divides a Giorgione from a “School of Titian,” or a Van Eyck from a “Netherlandish Master ca. 1430.”
But we really do see a Rembrandt as better than a work by some anonymous follower. It doesn’t matter that it was the same painting. We have been taught that great art is, by definition, original. And to be “school of” is, by definition, to be a follower. In 1996, the Metropolitan Museum investigated this dilemma with a show whose title pithily, and bleakly, summed up the conundrum: “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt.”
No artist seems a better candidate for Not Rembrandt than Jan Lievens. And the question of how to look at a painting by Lievens presents an aesthetic challenge. How can one see a work by him without thinking of Rembrandt and finding it wanting?
Such comparisons have been unavoidable since 1891, when a Dutch translation appeared of a recently discovered Latin autobiography by Constantijn Huygens, one of the most influential writers in the early Dutch Republic, a renowned musician, an accomplished poet in both …
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