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.

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Jan Lievens: Job in His Misery, 1631

If “following nature alone” today might suggest a snapshot shorn of intermediate artifice, in Rembrandt’s or Caravaggio’s time “naturalism” often meant the interposition—particularly into scenes that, because of their holiness or antiquity, were traditionally shown above and outside the regular world—of the grub of daily life. Taking a “filthy whore” as a model for the Holy Virgin was a belligerent reaction to the Renaissance and Mannerist painters whose sense of artistic propriety was heavily dependent on derivations from idealized antique sculpture: Rembrandt, for example, was often accused of a lack of decorum.

Neither Caravaggio nor Rembrandt meant “realism” to detract from their highly artificial paintings. The word “baroque,” which better than anyone else they embody, has no conno- tation suggesting a lack of drama or, indeed, melodrama. No matter how “natural,” their paintings remain elaborate fictions. To show the neighborhood hooker as the Virgin was to suggest how unexpectedly the sacred could burst forth through or-dinary experience, and the smeared, dirty feet on the worshiper of the Virgin of the Rosary—in Amster- dam in Rembrandt’s time—stress the proximity of the heavenly apparition to the everyday worshiper, the ordinary person who might be praying in front of the painting in a church. These details heighten the spiritual drama of images that might otherwise seem distant, and that, in Mannerist works, reached extremes of otherworldliness.

When inserted successfully into a painting, such daily details acquire unexpected emotional force. One critic wrote of Hendrick ter Brugghen that “it remains inexplicable how paintings with so many irregularities and ‘ugly’ details can nonetheless possess such grandeur.”6 How ironic that this practice, essentially Dutch and thus identified with the fiercest of heretic nations, would find among its most eloquent proponents the propagandists of the Counter-Reformation, who encouraged artists to show ordinary lives electrified by the divine. Velázquez, for example, placed two homely kitchen maids in the foreground of a Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, relegating the holy figures to the background and emphasizing the eruption of the marvelous in the everyday, a composition essentially borrowed from the Amsterdam painter Pieter Aertsen.

Lievens, like Caravaggio, Ter Brugghen, and Rembrandt, had a marked taste for such “aberrations.” From the very beginning of his career, as in his painting of Job, he savors the drooping skin and watery eyes of old people, though it was not a fascination for the elderly, or for the ugly, per se: whatever his subject, his main interest is in texture, hair, clothes, skin, eyes, the feel of the physical world.

Some of his history paintings suffer, as a result, from a kind of horror vacui; the artist is too determined to render every hair, every single fold of cloth, to sharpen his focus to the essential elements. Perhaps from a pileup of obsessive pentimenti, the paint can be laid on so thickly that the canvasses acquire an ungainly cakiness. His Esther, for example, seems to miss the point of its Caravaggesque lighting, meant to draw the eye to a few essential passages, by cramming every corner with visual debris.

Lievens’s focus on details at the expense of the whole can often render his history paintings inferior to Rembrandt’s or Caravaggio’s, for whom the emotional or spiritual drama was always in the foreground. Yet in his portraits, landscapes, and drawings, when Lievens, rather than trying to create overintellectualized allegories, takes direct inspiration from “nature,” the results are often magical.

Though it now seems difficult to mistake Rembrandt for Lievens, in a painting such as the Rijksmuseum’s Still Life with Books it is easy to see why Lievens’s early pictures were confused with Rembrandt’s. Indeed, though most experts now give the painting to Lievens, its attribution has floated between the two for decades. Freed of the obligation to create a religious or emotional drama, Lievens, as in this large and deceptively simple work, can be seen to his best advantage when portraying objects from the physical world, the wunderkind who combines an assured grasp of a shape or an expression with the mature artist’s genius for capturing—as in his portraits—the little glint in the eye or a tiny curl of the lip that betrays an entire personality, a single presence brought alive by an accumulation of carefully selected details, an anatomy lesson of its own.


Rembrandt’s early work—created when he was in closest communion with Lievens and with Utrecht—was his most highly valued in his own time. His later work was considered as vulgar as the unlettered boor who created it: in 1707, Gerard de Lairesse, an artist who was himself portrayed by Rembrandt, warned beginners against painting “like Rembrand or Lievensz, whose colors ooze down the picture like dung.”7

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a revolution in taste caused Rembrandt’s early oeuvre to be rejected by certain leading critics as “baroque” and superficial, while the later work came to be valued for the depth of its spirituality. By the end of the century, his paintings had been surrounded with an aura of the sacred, most dramatically typified by the new Rijksmuseum, which installed his Night Watch in the place of the altar at the end of a grand cathedral-like Gallery of Honor.

If “spirituality” is the criterion, Jan Lievens will always lose out. He is not at his best when treating religious or historical subjects. His early Raising of Lazarus, which Rembrandt owned, may be a Protestant approach to the subject, as the catalog suggests.8 But the portrayal of Lazarus as rising from the dead unassisted makes his ghostly hands, sticking out from the tomb as in a scene from Wilkie Collins, seem oddly detached from the other figures in the painting, most notably from Christ who, far above, beseeches heaven on his behalf.

This is far less poignant than Rembrandt’s muscular version of the same theme, in which the hand of a powerful Savior all but jerks Lazarus’ dusty corpse to a dazed new life. Lievens’s light is diffuse, apparently coming from several different sources, and as a result the viewer is unsure what exactly is going on. Rembrandt uses Caravaggio’s lighting devices to emphasize the suddenness of this passage from death; he lingers on Christ’s magical hand and the faces of the amazed onlookers, moments away from reaching the stirring Lazarus.

The contrast may best be shown in another work Lievens created during the years he was in close contact with Rembrandt, perhaps as part of a competition engineered by Huygens. At first glance, their images of Christ on the Cross seem nearly identical, Christ hanging crucified, entirely alone, against a dark background. Rembrandt’s Christ is still alive, his mouth opened in protest or pain. Lievens’s has just expired: it is as if the two paintings are snapshots taken only a few seconds apart, on either side of the moment of death.

Rembrandt’s image is, accordingly, the more poignant: the living being is still struggling. The crime has been consummated in Lievens’s picture and Christ is now, as Arthur Wheelock writes, “an object of contemplation rather than empathy.” One should not make too much of the difference—contemplation does not exclude empathy—but it is true that emphasis on contemplation rather than empathy, on meditation versus emotion, goes to the heart of Lievens’s art.

His works rarely stir the feelings that Rembrandt’s inspire, but the fascination of Lievens is not emotional or “spiritual”: it is looking at him looking, restlessly seeking new forms, styles, and techniques, never shrinking from an artistic challenge, willing to take risks of failure, and sometimes, indeed, to fail. It is a personality in perpetual motion, catalogued in a series of surprising self-portraits.

The earliest shows an eager young man with bright eyes and flowing hair; the last, in middle age, draped in sumptuous clothes that reflect the luster of his worldly success. In between, Lievens paints himself in radically different styles: in the manner of Van Dyck or, in a moody, mysterious image, half bathed in golden light that might seem to be the light of Utrecht. A self-portrait in profile displays his virtuosity (“a difficult feat requiring exceptional concentration and the use of two mirrors”) in a performance nearly unique in Netherlandish art.

So many trends and influences mark his style that it is sometimes hard to believe, looking at an exhibition of his works, that they could all be the product of a single mind. But it is Lievens’s very catholicity of manner and media that make him such a typical Netherlander. His woodcuts sometimes recall sixteenth-century masters like Lucas Cranach and sometimes anticipate the German expressionists. His landscapes sometimes recall Brouwer and sometimes look toward Corot.

The Italianism of the Utrecht Caravaggisti led some critics to describe them as “un-Dutch.” But if anything characterizes the Dutch art of the seventeenth century, it is its dazzling cosmopolitanism, its astonishing capacity for self-renewal by constantly absorbing, and then transforming, innovations produced elsewhere. These innovations passed through Lievens’s art as they did through that of so many other artists.

What unites them, and what made the resulting works Dutch—the primary characteristic of Netherlandish painting since the dawn of the ars nova of the early Renaissance—was “realism.” While we would not today recognize a congregation of bejeweled saints in a painting by Jan van Eyck as “realistic,” this word was attached to his careful descriptions of the real, physical world within his holy scenes just as the word “naturalism” was appended to the work of baroque artists such as Caravaggio or Rembrandt. This was what was revolutionary about Jan van Eyck in the fifteenth century; and this, at the end of the sixteenth century, was what was revolutionary about Caravaggio, and made him “Dutch”: il Rembrante dell’Italia.

It is difficult to look at Lievens without the inevitable, and unfair, comparison to Rembrandt, just as it is impossible to look at a work by Rembrandt as simply and directly as I did as a child, undazzled by the éclat of his name. Perhaps the solution is not to look at Lievens alongside Rembrandt, but simply to follow all the permutations that captured his wandering eye. Looking at his work as a whole, with all the trends it absorbed, is like reading an anthology of the Dutch Golden Age.

His magnificent drawings, where he could most directly record the observations of an eye that missed nothing, may be his most distinguished legacy. His depictions of the ruined castles at Brederode and Egmond (destroyed in the war with Spain, they were a favorite theme of patriotic artists), recall contemporary images of the ancient Italian monuments. Other landscape drawings import a different Italy—not the shading of Caravaggio but the brilliance of its splendid southern light—into tenebrous Holland. In one densely wooded landscape showing deer grazing in a dark Dutch forest, he deploys the draftsman’s technique to infuse the scene with unease: frenzied cross-hatching conveys the threat stalking the resting deer more efficiently, and subtly, than any pack of lurking hunters.

Private Collection
Jan Lievens: Self-Portrait, circa 1629–1630

His most revealing “self-portrait” is perhaps a sketch of a forest dominated by a tree whose branches twist in every direction and whose perfect execution betrays a flawless, and seemingly effortless, mastery of perspective. Behind the great tree, in the midst of the forest, a tiny man sits drawing. This scene reminds one of another description of Jan Lievens, recorded by a neighbor when he was not quite ten years old:

He applied himself with such industry and diligence to improving his skills that he was oblivious to anything else. Even the riots…between the Remonstrant forces and the townspeople, during which all the doors and windows were closed and the magistrates were forced to call in the militia to quell the uprising, failed to distract him from drawing prints…,for he regarded the love of art as more important than all the upheaval in the world.

  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.

  6. 6

    In 1970, the Rijksmuseum bought a Ter Brugghen Adoration. It featured an adorable putto of a Christ child, but as the picture was cleaned, the infant grew wider and heavier, until finally it was revealed to be a wrinkled baby so recently born that it still seemed half-embryonic.

  7. 7

    In Blankert, “Caravaggio en Noord-Nederland,” p. 40. The German painter Joaquim von Sandrart, who himself studied in Utrecht, attributed, in his Teutsche Academie of 1675, Rembrandt’s taste for unattractive reality to his humble origins, including his presumed illiteracy.

  8. 8

    Pieter Lastman, the Catholic teacher of both Lievens and Rembrandt, “generally depicted Lazarus as physically fit and being helped from the tomb by Christ’s disciples, emphasizing the importance of saintly intercessors. Lievens approached the subject from a Protestant perspective, which taught that Christ was the sole agent through whom God granted new life; thus Lievens portrayed Lazarus as rising from the dead without the assistance of others.”