Arts Feature: Better than Rembrandt, at least for a while

Article by Ray Cavanaugh
Jan Lievens, Self Portrait

Jan Lievens, Self Portrait

Though today he is nowhere nearly as legendary as Rembrandt, child prodigy Jan Lievens was, for a time, a much bigger deal. Lievens, who was slightly younger than Rembrandt, was already a celebrity artist by the time Rembrandt picked up a paint brush. According to Bob Haak, author of Rembrandt: Life and Work, the two would, in fact, share a studio, which fostered healthy and fruitful competition. At that point, the artists were both around twenty years old, and Lievens was the more advanced of the two – his works coveted by aristocrats and connoisseurs.

How things would change. Poor Lievens “barely registers today in the public consciousness,” according to Arthur K. Wheelock, who wrote about Lievens for the 2009 exhibition, A Dutch Master Rediscovered. Wheelock talks about the vicissitudes and variables factoring into the phenomenon of artistic celebrity, which “involves an array of issues, including career choices, personality, accidents of history, and the changing assessment of artistic styles over the centuries.”

In a sense, Lievens’s companionship with Rembrandt damaged his legacy. Owing to Rembrandt’s spectacular notoriety, Lievens has been cast as a peripheral figure whose name is of interest only to the extent that he is connected to the great master Rembrandt. Lievens has even been described as a ‘student’ of Rembrandt. This is quite unfair and ironic, considering the fact that Lievens had a successful painting career before Rembrandt ever earned his first guilder. As if this was not sufficient injustice, some of Lievens’s paintings have actually been attributed to Rembrandt. One wonders: If Lievens could have it all over again, would he simply avoid his old pal?

Another factor believed to have contributed to his decline, is that Lievens, who spent significant periods of time in London and Antwerp, is viewed as having a style that is too international. Also, because he moved around quite a bit, he does not fit comfortably into a particular city’s artistic tradition. Furthermore, his moving around likely led to the loss of artwork and documents that could have shed light on his thoughts and existence. There has also been mention that Lievens endeavored to “satisfy too many conflicting desires by adapting his style of painting, thereby sacrificing his core artistic convictions for success in the marketplace.” He would, of course, not be the first artist to do such a thing.

Lievens was born on October 24th 1607, which made him one year and three months younger than Rembrandt. Both masters were natives of Leiden. Lievens’s father, an embroiderer, noticed his son’s early love of painting and apprenticed him at the age of eight to Joris van Schooten. Having spent two years learning painting and drawing fundamentals, young Lievens embarked on another two-year apprenticeship with the famous history painter Pieter Lastman, who would later have a profound effect on Rembrandt.

According to Leiden historian Jan Orlers, Lievens had no other instructors after Lastman. Some find this account implausible, however, given that Lievens – precocious as he was – would have been still just twelve years old. Skeptics suspect that Orlers chose to emphasize the boy’s youthful genius by de-emphasizing the amount of instruction he received. Whatever the case, Lievens soon enjoyed a collection of awed patrons, who were astonished that a “mere stripling of twelve or scarcely older could produce such work”.

When this ‘stripling’ grew into a young man, he teamed up with Rembrandt. Aside from painting, they both experimented with chalk and explored the medium of printmaking. They enjoyed depicting members of the underclass, long before it was in widespread vogue. They also shared a penchant for painting old people, in whose creased faces they saw ‘character’. Though their little artistic fraternity might have been conducive to development and inspiration, it also led to competition for paying work and status. It is interesting and titillating to note that Rembrandt appeared to have backdated some paintings, as if he wanted to be viewed as the influencer, instead of the one being influenced. As they entered their mid-twenties, Rembrandt left for Amsterdam and Lievens went to London. After three years in London, Lievens headed to Antwerp. He obtained coveted commissions and married Susanna Colijns de Nole, the daughter of a prominent sculptor. The couple had one son, Jan Andrea, who survived infancy.

Despite obtaining high-level commissions, Lievens was not adept at handling money. Records show that in 1643, he was required to surrender possessions to creditors. Wheelock suspects that these troubles led Lievens to relocate to Amsterdam the following year. There, he rented a residence from another artist. It was a situation that ended in a lawsuit. Even more unfortunate, Lievens’s wife died. The artist remarried three years later. He and his second wife, Cornelia de Bray, would have six children.

For several consecutive decades, Lievens received ample commissions. Yet he continued to suffer financial problems. Correspondence from the latter part of his life tends to revolve around obtaining the next payment. Eventually he was borrowing money by using his own paintings as collateral. If it was any consolation to Lievens, the great Rembrandt also had monetary woes that resulted in bankruptcy and the removal of nearly all his belongings. Lievens died at age sixty-six, in both poverty and debt, in June 1674, some five years after Rembrandt.

Forty years later, Lievens received scant mention in a prominent book on 17th-century Dutch artists. Soon enough, his name would virtually disappear altogether. An 1883 text included his name, but listed him as a student of Rembrandt. On some occasions, his paintings were even relocated to lesser-travelled parts of museums – an objective correlative to the figurative obfuscation suffered by his legacy. Meanwhile, the name ‘Rembrandt’ had become a synonym for artistic brilliance.

Around the turn of the 20th century, however, there was a noticeable resuscitation of interest in Lievens. This was largely owed to the publication of a long-neglected autobiography by Golden Age writer Constantjin Huygens, who – though he mildly rebuked the young Lievens for an “excess of self-confidence” – emphatically extolled his genius. Soon, a collection of German scholars were giving their attention to Lievens, whose work would occasionally appear in exhibitions of Dutch art.

Five years ago, the Milwaukee Art Museum focused on this ‘rediscovered’ artist for an exhibition. It seems that Lievens, the former child prodigy, is starting to emerge from the towering shadow cast upon him by the grandmaster Rembrandt, his immortal friend.


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Posted by on Jan 3 2015. Filed under Arts, History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Arts Feature: Better than Rembrandt, at least for a while”

  1. Thank you for the comprehensive post! It has been challenging to piece together the story on Lievens, so this is extremely helpful.

    It’s fascinating that Lievens’ stylistic versatility and cosmopolitan sensibility are seen to detract from his legacy rather than increase it.

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