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Not Rembrandt, But…

Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered

a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Milwaukee Art Museum; and the Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
Yale University Press, 308 pp., $65.00
Private Collection/Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Jan Lievens: Portrait of Rembrandt, circa 1629

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 Dutch and Latin, and secretary and intimate to the Princes of Orange. Among its revelations, the unpublished document included a surprising glimpse of Huygens’s visit, in around 1629, to two young painters in Leiden:

The first, whom I have described as an embroiderer’s son, is called Jan Lievens; the other, whose cradle stood in a mill, Rembrandt. Both are still beardless and, going by their faces, more boys than men…. I venture to suggest offhand that Rembrandt is superior to Lievens in his sure touch and liveliness of emotions. Conversely, Lievens is the greater in inventiveness and audacious themes and forms. Everything his young spirit endeavors to capture must be magnificent and lofty.

The several hundred words of this description, the earliest written glimpse of Rembrandt, have been as extensively parsed as any ever written on Dutch art. One suspects that Huygens was hard to impress. But he was impressed by Rembrandt and Lievens. He was impressed by their seriousness, which he suspected excessive (“They regard even the most innocent diversions of youth as a waste of time, as if they were already old men burdened with age and long past such follies”); and he was impressed by their dazzling promise: Lievens was “a young man of great spirit, and great things may be expected of him if he is granted a long enough life.”

Between 1625 and 1631, in their late teens and early twenties, the two friends worked together closely, though in the catalog for the recent show Arthur Wheelock points out that “absolutely no evidence” suggests that they shared a studio, as earlier critics had assumed. Lievens painted a portrait of Rembrandt and used him as a model in several pictures; Lievens features in Rembrandt’s paintings from this time too. Perhaps Huygens himself challenged them to tackle the same subjects: both, in those years, depicted the raising of Lazarus, Christ on the Cross, Samson and Delilah, and an old man in mournful contemplation—Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem and Lievens’s Job in His Misery.1

Huygens recognized the two artists’ different strengths without preferring one to the other. Indeed, as a more recent commentator has stated, “the two used such a similar painting technique that it is extremely difficult to ascribe their unsigned works of this period correctly.”2 In 1933, Kurt Bauch, in his monograph dedicated to Rembrandt’s early work, assigned several of Lievens’s works to Rembrandt purely on the basis of their high quality.

Fate had more indignities in store for Lievens. Huygens, who criticized Rembrandt for the same thing, had written that his only objection to Lievens was “his stubbornness, which derives from an excess of self-confidence. He either roundly rejects all criticism or, if he acknowledges its validity, takes it in bad spirit.” An English ambassador said that Lievens “thinks there is none to be compared with him in all Germany, Holland, nor the rest of the seventeen provinces.”

A celebrity in Leiden by the age of twelve; his works commissioned or purchased by the Princes of Orange and the King of England; invited to contribute “to all the major decorative schemes commissioned from Dutch artists of the day” and to portray such international figures as Rembrandt, Descartes, Huygens, Vondel, Adriaen Brouwer, and the Prince of Wales—Jan Lievens was hardly pathetic. To be sure, few are lucky enough to live out their lives without eliciting at least a handful of unflattering remarks.

But Lievens’s undeniable failure to become the greatest painter of his century, combined with those hints of vain behavior, has been enough to suggest a pathology.

Maybe he had a personality disorder,” The New York Times recently mused.3


Unlike Rembrandt, who never left his native country, Lievens was drawn to travel. When he was about twenty-four, in 1632, he left Leiden for London, where he stayed three years and where, a neighbor records, “his fine works gained him immediate acclaim,” including rich rewards from King Charles. Thereafter, he spent nine years in Antwerp before returning to Holland, where he remained until his death—like Rembrandt’s, in poverty—in 1674.

In his account of “these celebrated young men, from whom I can scarcely tear myself away,” Constantijn Huygens wrote that their gravest fault was that “hitherto, neither has found it necessary to spend a few months traveling through Italy.” They explained this “touch of folly in figures otherwise so brilliant” by telling Huygens that they were “in the bloom of youth and wish to profit from it; they have no time to waste on foreign travel.”

Lievens never reached Italy, but the most advanced ideas in Italian art were already in the air, and a journey he might have made during his early teens, one that can only be conjectured, may account for some of the most striking Italianate characteristics of his, and Rembrandt’s, art. In the catalog accompanying the recent exhibitions in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and Amsterdam, Arthur Wheelock wonders whether, perhaps in 1620 or 1621, Lievens visited Utrecht. It was an obvious destination for a young painter: not Italy but the closest thing to it, and only a few hours from Leiden.

If Lievens indeed went to Utrecht in 1620 or 1621, he would have reached the city at a momentous time for its art. In 1620, Gerard van Honthorst returned to the city from Italy, where he had occupied a place of the first importance in the Roman art world; the next year, Dirck van Baburen came back, and he, with Honthorst and Hendrick ter Brugghen, who had visited Italy in the previous decade, formed the core of the Italianizing painters known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti.

Many of Lievens’s early paintings bear the distinctive mark of Caravaggio, translated into Dutch through Utrecht. His Feast of Esther, for example, employs Caravaggio’s famous lighting effects: a figure in the foreground clothed in shadow, his body blocking a light that, so enhanced, underlines the queen’s dramatic accusation. The composition is lifted, via Honthorst, almost verbatim from Caravaggio.

Lievens soon discarded Caravaggio’s apparently natural but in fact highly contrived lighting effects, though Rembrandt employed them throughout his life. But something else reveals Caravaggio’s influence on the Netherlands. Lievens’s Job in His Misery, less obviously Caravaggesque than his Esther, is enormous, the man nearly life-sized, his old skin sagging, the distended veins in his arm almost visibly pulsing.

The scale speaks to Lievens’s ambition, but it also gives him the range to explore the possibilities of portraying so many sometimes grotesque physical details of the old man’s battered body. In this sense, it recalls another very large painting, Rembrandt’s closely contemporary Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, in which the dissected arm of an executed criminal is exposed to the gaze of a scholarly committee.


Caravaggio’s art, controversial and even scandalous in his homeland, would for several reasons have been almost immediately comprehended, and then extensively imitated, in the Netherlands. It was generally recognized that many of Caravaggio’s themes, such as the group of half-length figures gathered behind a table, which became a near trademark of his, drew on Netherlandish painters,4 but more to the point, the aspect of his art that most struck contemporary viewers—his “naturalism”—was also, since the end of the Middle Ages, the most distinctive aspect of the art of the Netherlands.

Caravaggio considered “that all works…are naught but…child’s play or trifles if they not be done and painted from life.”5 His faithfulness to nature was not always appreciated. Ten years after his death, an Italian amateur accused him of using “some filthy whore” as a model for the Virgin, and similar accusations were leveled at the careful naturalistic detail of Caravaggio’s Dutch successors.

Our great master Rembrandt,” a writer remarked in 1718, “was of the same opinion [as Caravaggio], taking it as his basic rule to follow nature alone, regarding everything else with suspicion.”

He chose no Greek Venus as his model, but rather a washerwoman, or a peat-trader from a barn, calling this aberration the imitation of nature…. Flabby breasts, misshapen hands, aye the welts of the staylaces on the belly, of the garters on the legs, must be visible, otherwise nature was not satisfied.

  1. 1

    The suggestion is Arthur Wheelock’s, in the exhibition catalog, p. 12. Perhaps even more interestingly, Rembrandt seems to have backdated some of these paintings, “making it appear that he was the initiator rather than the follower.”

  2. 2

    Eric Domela Nieuwenhuis, “Jan Lievens,” in From Rembrandt to Vermeer: 17th-Century Dutch Artists (Grove Art/Macmillan, 2000), p. 198.

  3. 3

    Ken Johnson, “A Forgotten Baroque Painter, Shown Free of Rembrandt’s Shadow,” The New York Times, October 31, 2008.

  4. 4

    Caravaggio had seen works by artists including Marinus van Reymerswaele and Jan van Hemessen and employed some of their compositional devices. See Albert Blankert, “Caravaggio en Noord-Nederland,” in Blankert and Leonard J. Slatkes, Nieuw Licht op de Gouden Eeuw: Hendrick ter Brugghen en tijdgenoten (Utrecht and Braunschweig: Centraal Museum and Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, 1987), p. 17.

  5. 5

    Duncan Bull et al., Rembrandt–Caravaggio (Waanders/Rijksmuseum, 2006), p. 16. When Caravaggio was only thirty-three, Karel van Mander, in Haarlem, published the first biography of him anywhere in Europe.

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