Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2018
Bernhard Schnackenburg Jan Lievens: Friend and Rival of the Young Rembrandt Petersberg, Germany: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2016. 488 pp.; 529 ills. Hardcover €148.00 (9783731903338)

Jan Lievens: Friend and Rival of the Young Rembrandt considers the early career of one of the Dutch Republic’s most beguiling artists, a painter-printmaker who worked for courts in The Hague, London, and Berlin but also practiced his craft for eight years in Antwerp and participated in Amsterdam’s grandest decorative program in the seventeenth century, the new Town Hall. Part gentleman painter à la Peter Paul Rubens, part hustler on a competitive market for art, Jan Lievens (1607–74) continues to intrigue scholars because of his constantly evolving style. The artist spent his first years as an independent master in Leiden, and this formative part of his career is the subject of Bernhard Schnackenburg’s study.

This volume comprises a substantial essay that interweaves analysis of formal influences and biographical data, followed by a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints. Additional components include translations of the earliest commentaries on the artist; examples of his output after 1632; a catalogue of the work of his first pupil, his younger brother Dirk; and a list of rejected attributions. It is, in essence, an important updating of Hans Schneider’s Jan Lievens: sein Leben und seine Werke, mit einem Supplement von R.E.O. Ekkart (Amsterdam: B.M. Israël, 1973).

One of the author’s significant contributions is his investigation of the sources of the artist’s widely acknowledged eclecticism. While J. Douglas Stewart (“Before Rembrandt’s ‘Shadow’ Fell: Lievens, Van Dyck and Rubens: Some Reconsiderations,” Hoogsteder-Naumann Mercury 11, 1990: 42–47), Franziska Gottwald (Das Tronie—Muster, Studie, und Meisterwerk. Die Genese einer Gattung der Malerei vom 15. Jahrhundert bis zu Rembrandt, Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2011), and even Schnackenburg himself (“Jan Lievens und Pieter de Grebber,” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 68, 2007: 181–218) have previously cited the Flemish painter Rubens as a source for Lievens around 1625, Schnackenburg here delves into the Mannerism of Hendrick Goltzius and, more extensively, the classicism of Pieter de Grebber as stimuli. He argues for a sustained engagement with de Grebber, positing that the Leidener derived his broadly painted musicians from his Haarlem colleague’s model, while de Grebber, in turn, assimilated the tronie (character study) pioneered by Lievens into his own oeuvre. By decentering the emphasis on Pieter Lastman to such a degree that he outright questions the assumption that Lievens and Rembrandt van Rijn each completed a second apprenticeship with the Amsterdam painter (22), Schnackenburg expands the conversation around Lievens’s early sources in bold ways. The fact that only one work by Lastman—a drawing of three women singing with a flutist (fig. 71)—appears among the book’s 529 images reinforces his point. Lievens certainly looked voraciously to his peers, as seen when one compares the Honthorst-like gambling soldiers and elegant chiaroscuro of The Cardplayers of around 1625 (no. 17, New York, Leiden Collection) with the crowded Finsonian composition and patterned costume of The Allegory of the Five Senses on One Panel (no. 18, private collection) of about the same time. Yet it remains difficult to dismiss the account of Jan Orlers, who wrote in 1641 that Lievens studied for two years with Lastman in Amsterdam. A neighbor of Lievens’s father, Orlers certainly knew the details of the artist’s training, and his 1640 inventory includes nine paintings by Jan and three by Dirk. Indeed, Lievens’s emphasis on gesture and narrative clarity during this period is firmly rooted in Lastman’s manner.

The specter of Rembrandt looms eternally over the young Lievens, as is acknowledged in the title of this volume. The early careers of these two artists have been inextricably linked ever since the publication in 1891 of the newly rediscovered autobiography of the connoisseur and secretary to the stadtholder Constantijn Huygens, which celebrates the “pair of young and noble painters from Leiden.” Publications such as the exhibition catalogue Rembrandt & Lievens in Leiden, ‘a pair of young and noble painters’ (Leiden: Museum de Lakenhal, 1991) and Roelof van Straten’s Young Rembrandt: The Leiden Years, 1606–1632 (Leiden: Foleor, 2005) consider the artists’ Picasso-and-Braque-like journey into subject matter, style, and studio practice as a shared project during this period. Schnackenburg weighs in on the confusion of the two artists’ hands, a dilemma that has confronted viewers since the first documented instance of misidentification in 1632. He proposes some radical attributions, giving such works as Travellers and Soldiers at Camp Fire (no. 68, Tokyo, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation), which bears an early Rembrandt monogram and the year 162 (8), to Lievens. This painting, which like Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait Laughing (fig. 91) of about the same year is on copper, has more to do with the composition and illumination of that master’s Musical Company (1626, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum) and his Flight into Egypt (1627, Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts) than anything in Lievens’s oeuvre. Debate will likely continue around the attribution of other paintings, such as the beautiful Bust of an Old Woman with Embroidered Headscarf (no. 206, Windsor Castle, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II).

The catalogue raisonné presents 150 paintings, 35 drawings, and 73 etchings (13), a sizeable oeuvre. Like the essay, it is lavishly illustrated, with the vast majority of the images reproduced in color. The chronological organization, in contrast to the thematic organization of the Schneider-Ekkart volume, allows for greater nuance in showing Lievens’s creative process. One observes, for example, that the artist concentrated his efforts in arranging multi-figure compositions on paper, while he reserved canvas and panel for colorful explorations of single figures in dramatic lighting. In addition, one can see how he rethought a concept across media and time. The “Eastern” figure, with turban and plume and ornamental robes, for example, appears in paint in The Feast of Esther of around 1625 (no. 26, Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art) and in a drawing of the same subject of about 1628 (no. 66, Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstichkabinett), in a single-figure drawing of 1629/30 (no. 141, The Hague, private collection), in a print of 1631 (no. 180, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Rijksprentenkabinet), and in striking paintings of around 1629 (no. 86, Potsdam, Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten, Bildergalerie Sanssouci) and around 1632 (no. 241, New York, Leiden Collection). Interest in such a figure may have been stimulated by the visit of the Persian ambassador Musa Beg to The Hague in 1626, but the artist’s occupation with the figure over the course of several years offers an interesting baseline for his investigations in light and shade, color, and plasticity. The only challenge to the chronological arrangement of the catalogue raisonné is the paucity of dated material.

The reader will be pleased to see unfamiliar or newly discovered pieces in the catalogue, such as the pen-and-ink David Anointed by Samuel (no. 33, St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum), which, in spite of its Rembrandt monogram, relates in its hatching and figure types to Lievens’s Stoning of Saint Paul at Lystra (no. 27, London, British Museum) and Mucius Scaevola before Porsenna (no. 28, Leiden, Rijksuniversiteit, Rijksprentenkabinet), both from around 1626. Yet the idea that Lievens would add RHF (“Rembrandt Harmenszoon fecit”) to the drawing in order to designate it as “an imaginary work by Rembrandt, thereby expressing his admiration for the artist” (55) is puzzling. The important 2008–9 exhibition Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered in Washington, Milwaukee, and Amsterdam uncovered objects practically unknown to scholars, including the Man Holding a Skull (no. 32, London, private collection), and it is an exciting development to see the artist’s corpus revised to include these discoveries. Provocative attributions, however, linger. The Old Scholar at his Writing Desk (no. 173, now Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Hornstein Collection) of about 1631 bears an IL monogram, but the scholar’s wiry beard and the inelegantly executed documents on his desk raise questions. A glance at the survey of artist’s signatures and monograms (442-443), a valuable appendix, reveals that the “IL” on the Hornstein painting is comparatively clumsy, and it sits uneasily within the painting’s composition.

Finally, the author is to be praised for resurrecting the figure of Dirk Lievens, Jan’s sole known pupil in Leiden, and for making a first attempt at assigning an oeuvre to him. Gathering works in all media dating to between 1626 and 1630 that have a connection to Jan’s production, Schnackenburg is the first to illuminate the master-pupil relationship between Jan and his brother. The list comprises twenty-one objects, a solid foundation for further research.

As a comprehensive survey of Lievens’s early work, Schnackenburg’s catalogue is a major step forward in Lievens studies. It is exemplary in its incorporation of dendrochronological summaries, X-radiographs, and other technical studies, and its clear organization facilitates cross-referencing. Furthermore, Kristin Lohse Belkin’s sophisticated translation from the German results in a text that is pleasurable to read. While Lievens has long been cast in the shadow of Rembrandt, this volume demonstrates his strengths in interpretation and invention beyond those of his esteemed colleague.

Jacquelyn Coutré
Bader Curator and Researcher of European Art, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University