This book presents an ambitious and original reappraisal of the early work of Jan Lievens (1607–1674), the Dutch painter, draftsman, and printmaker whose formative period in Leiden was intimately connected with that of his contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn. In 1632, the two young artists parted ways, Rembrandt to establish himself in Amsterdam, Lievens to try his luck at the Caroline court in London and later in Catholic Antwerp before ending up, in 1644, back in Rembrandt’s milieu in Amsterdam. In concentrating on the Leiden years, which he considers the most individualistic and fruitful period of Lievens’s career, Schnackenburg follows a longstanding trend. The only comprehensive catalogue of Lievens’s oeuvre remains Hans Schneider’s monograph of 1932, updated by Rudi Ekkart in 1973 and only partially superseded by the monographic exhibition held in Washington, Milwaukee, and Amsterdam in 2008-2009.
This well-illustrated volume begins with a 126-page essay in which the author traces Lievens’s development from brash beginner to established master. He shows that along the way, Lievens experimented with effects of natural and artificial light and with painterly techniques ranging from rough, expressive brushwork, augmented by scratching with the butt end of the brush (a trick, also adopted by Rembrandt, that Schnackenburg attributes to Flemish influence) to delicate refinement that translates Gerard Dou’s meticulous handling to a larger scale. Huygens’s contrast between Rembrandt and Lievens turns out to be spot on: while Lievens tried his hand at small-scale, multi-figure narrative compositions (a form in which Rembrandt excelled), his true métier remained the life-size, half-length figure and especially the ‘tronie’, or character study. Indeed, Schnackenburg credits Lievens with introducing this pictorial type into Dutch painting, transforming a Flemish studio exercise into a marketable commodity. (He does not entirely clarify how Lievens’s tronies differed from the single-figure paintings of musicians and courtesans already popular in Utrecht in the 1620s, but the iconographic indeterminacy of many of Lievens’s figures seems key.)
One of Schnackenburg’s most striking conclusions is that Lievens probably did not study with Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, as Jan Orlers asserted in 1641, but learned from Lastman’s innovations through Rembrandt, and only after 1629. (The passage from Orlers’s history of Leiden is provided in English translation, along with Constantijn Huygens’s familiar comments from his unpublished autobiography of 1631; while Orlers was a family friend and owned several paintings by both Jan Lievens and his brother Dirk, Schnackenburg deems his account unreliable.) Instead, Lievens benefitted from an on-going dialogue with the Haarlem master Pieter de Grebber, with whom he may have traveled to Antwerp in 1628, and, more generally, from a fascination with Flemish art that began with his earliest work. (This connection sets the stage for further investigation into Lievens’s migration to London, where, Schnackenburg maintains, he worked in Van Dyck’s studio, and then to Antwerp, where he made contact with Adriaen Brouwer as well as associates of Rubens and Van Dyck.)
Attribution and stylistic development form the core of this account, supported by technical evidence from dendrochonology and X-radiographs. The analysis relies heavily on seeking out sources of inspiration for specific motifs and shifts in style. For the present writer, a painter as clearly self-assertive as documents cast Lievens to be might be credited with a bit more independence. Instances of a simple motif such as the half-length figure of an old man will inevitably look similar whether or not one artist was deliberately emulating another. To be fair, Schnackenburg pays close attention to nuances of style and technique in order to distinguish Lievens’s manner from others, but relatively little is said about the iconographic content of Lievens’s works or the circumstances in which they were produced.
Paintings, drawings, and prints are chronologically integrated in both the essay and the catalogue raisonné that follows. The catalogue documents 245 known works (135 paintings, 37 drawings, and 73 etchings) produced by Lievens in Leiden, beginning with a copy after a Weeping Heraclitus by Cornelis Ketel, in the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, Aachen, which Schnackenburg identifies as a juvenile work mentioned by Orlers, and ending with a painting on loan to Aachen, The Blind Tobit at the Return of His Son (private collection, US), previously attributed to Rembrandt, Dou, and Pieter Verelst. These are just two of the numerous discoveries and revisions to attribution and dating (including a separate catalogue of 14 rejected works) that make this book a stimulating contribution to the scholarship on Lievens. Like other studies of the young master, it also inevitably sheds light on Rembrandt, and Schnackenburg presents new instances of dialogue between the two, whom he sees as friendly rivals. He resists attempts to cast Lievens as a child prodigy, dating his initial apprenticeship with Joris van Schooten to 1618-21 (age 11-14, as was customary), and constructs his development as independent of Rembrandt until about 1628. From 1628 to 1632 the two artists took turns learning from each other, sharing models and props and painting on panels from the same batch, but maintaining separate studios. Lievens produced three times as many paintings during his Leiden years as Rembrandt did, his production doubling after 1630 when he began making replicas of his own works. The popularity of some compositions is also attested by copies, some attributable to Jan’s younger brother Dirk (1612-1650). Introduced as a faithful disciple who may have taken over the workshop when Jan departed for London in 1632, Dirk is given his own catalogue raisonné of 21 works.
The volume also includes a short catalogue of “Examples of Jan Lievens’s oeuvre after 1632”, presenting 12 paintings, 2 prints, and 3 drawings dating from the post-Leiden years; one assumes they represent what the author considers to be the highlights of Lievens’s later production. No such summary selection can account for a fifty-year career that, despite the persistent judgment that Lievens’s early work was his best, still demands more comprehensive study. For now, Bernhard Schnackenburg has provided a carefully observed and refreshing new survey of Lievens’s juvenilia that is sure to prompt discussion, debate, and future research. This book should take its place as an indispensable resource in any library seriously concerned with artistic developments in seventeenth-century Leiden.
Queen’s University Kingston, Canada