Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered. With essays by Stephanie S. Dickey, E. Melanie Gifford, Gregory Rubinstein, Jaap van der Veen, and Lloyd de Witt, and additional entries by Meredith Hale, Molli E. Kuenstner, Volker Manuth, Virginia C. Treanor, and David de Witt. Cat. exh. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Oct. 26, 2008 – Jan. 11, 2009; Milwaukee Art Museum, Feb. 7 – Apr. 16, 2009; Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam, May 17 – Aug. 9, 2009. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008. 320 pp, 250 color and 45 b&w illus. ISBN 978-0-300-14213-6.
Jonathan Bikker, Willem Drost, A Rembrandt Pupil in Amsterdam and Venice. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. 232 pp, 24 color and 134 b&w illus. ISBN 0-300-10581-9.
David A. de Witt, Jan van Noordt: Painter of History and Portraits in Amsterdam. Montreal & Kingston, London and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. 408 pp, 157 color and 68 b&w illus. ISBN 978-0-7735-3275-5.
The unifying premise of this review, that Jan Lievens, Willem Drost and Jan van Noordt all worked in the ‘orbit’ of Rembrandt, is nearly obsolete as a useful paradigm. The tools that our field has honed so finely – and often narrowly – in Rembrandt studies are now brought fully to bear on these other artists, allowing us to see each of them, in some cases for the first time, establish wholly independent and inventive careers in their own right. The Drost and Van Noordt studies are systematic catalogues raisonné, while the Lievens exhibition catalogue, limited in completeness only by the practicalities of the exhibition format, serves as the broadest and most in-depth analysis to date of his life and work.
The Lievens exhibition, sponsored by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Rembrandthuis, represents another in a string of recent high quality monographic exhibitions on Dutch artists emanating from the National Gallery. The contributions of multiple scholars clarify the work and career of Lievens to an extent that, finally, allows him to be seen independently from his early collaborator, Rembrandt. Yes, the relationship to Rembrandt is a necessary component, but despite its fertility this was only a brief portion of the career of both artists (although I would agree with Stephanie Dickey’s comment that there is more to be learned about the later period when both are in Amsterdam). The variety of Lievens’s pictorial explorations are examined by Arthur Wheelock’s lead essay, and viewed from a technical standpoint by Melanie Gifford, who adroitly concludes that the style and facture of Lievens’s work is shaped by a combination of “natural talent, courtly aspirations and the scale of his public commissions.” Unfortunately, many of the important late public works could not be included in the exhibition, but that is a minor drawback to an otherwise superlative achievement. Jaap van der Veen’s essay on Lievens’s patronage should fascinate anyone interested in the nuances of real-life interactions between a painter and his patrons.
Finally the inclusion of prints and drawings, and the fine essays on each medium by Dickey and Gregory Rubinstein, respectively, amply demonstrates Lievens’s creativity even as each scholar charts a path for additional research that may further refine our knowledge at a later point. As a printmaker Lievens is especially surprising at every turn, from his craggy woodcuts (perhaps only Christoffel Jegher’s woodcuts after Rubens rivaled Lievens’s innovation in that medium during the seventeenth century) to his ranging formality in intaglio portraits. Rubinstein presents the thesis that many of the late drawings were finished (and saleable) works in their own right. The freedom of handling in the landscapes is a highlight in all three media. Wheelock, Dickey, and Rubinstein subtly chart Lievens’s works in relation to the inspirations present in each milieu where he lived (Leiden, London, Antwerp, Amsterdam). The catalogue entries by these scholars and Lloyd de Witt (who also contributed an all-too brief essay on the career and personality of Lievens) and a few others are high in quality of thought and thorough in references. The reproductions are very good, and it is a great credit that the prints and drawings are also produced in color, but the newer printing techniques that allow very rich blacks with a matte finish are often detrimental to the tonal balance, exaggerating the already dark backgrounds common in Baroque paintings.
Perhaps the most important issue posed by the exhibition addresses originality, which brings us back to the Rembrandt comparison. Lievens was equally as inventive as Rembrandt in many respects, but he did travel and he did adapt to his surroundings. Moreover, he was ambitious in a more standard way, seeking high patronage. His international experience (whether or not it can be deemed successful in its own right) endeared him to the well-to-do Dutch clientele of his later career. Should that mark him as less independent and therefore less original? The exhibition rightly contradicts this long-held view, instead treating his variations and experimentations as highly creative endeavors. Certainly in his own mind Lievens was second to none.
Jonathan Bikker’s study of Willem Drost fills a crucial gap in our understanding of Rembrandt’s ‘third generation’ of pupils. Our factual knowledge of Drost’s career was scant as he disappeared from Amsterdam after only a brief time there. It is now revealed that he indeed traveled to Italy, but due to the misreading of a single signature by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot a century ago his signed Italian works were attributed to a different Drost with a first initial ‘P.’ Drost’s previously attributed works were a house of cards built on only a couple of signed paintings, and he had become a dumping ground for paintings high in quality but that did not fit elsewhere in the seemingly better understood oeuvres of Samuel van Hoogstraten, Carel and Barent Fabritius, and others who established themselves in the late 1640s and early 1650s. Bikker’s discovery that Drost died in Italy in 1659 at the age of 26 forces a rethinking and severe truncation of the attributed oeuvre, as most connoisseurs had assumed he returned to Amsterdam at a later point.
Bikker’s method is painstaking and authoritative. The career divides easily between Amsterdam and Venice, all the more so because the work is clearly different in style in each setting. While both periods feature mostly half-lengths, emphasize strong contrasts in lighting and an overall heavy painterly touch, the Italian works tend to show greater vitality and movement in the poses and more classically idealized or cherubic facial types. Bikker establishes connections to other Dutch artists who traveled to Italy at the same time, and to the German Johann Carl Loth. In Venice Drost adapted his manner to the fresh flowering of a tenebrist style indebted to Caravaggio and Ribera that was current at the moment. Despite the brief four years that Drost spent there, his impact was strong and his works were acquired by major collectors. Bikker’s study provides valuable insight into this period in a major metropolitan cross-roads for Italian artists and foreigners alike. It should attract the attention of scholars beyond the field of Dutch art.
Bikker’s catalogue presents very difficult connoisseurship questions; he is in most cases equally as meticulous in the analysis of his rejections as he is with his accepted attributions. We are presented with thirty-eight accepted paintings and thirty-two rejected and thirty-five known through documents and reproductions but presumed lost. Drawings and prints present altogether different problems and while they are discussed at points in the text they are not catalogued here. While Drost is now far better understood, it leaves a conundrum of many luminous and highly engaging works that still cannot be securely assigned to a known hand, including the Mauritshuis Saul and David, the Wallace Collection Centurion Cornelius, the St. Louis Portrait of an Artist (?), and the Raleigh Saint Matthew and the Angel (in Dennis Weller’s recent catalogue of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings in the North Carolina Museum of Art [pp. 162-164], the painting is attributed to Karel van der Pluym [1625-1672], a little-known artist associated with Rembrandt).
David de Witt’s resurrection (if I may call it that) of Jan van Noordt as a painter, draughtsman and printmaker is also exemplary. The introductory essays address the details of his life; the development of style in his painting; the character of his market and patronage; aspects of his personality as an artist, including a ‘penchant’ for themes of love and virtue in history painting; and on the basis of a small and admittedly probably not representative extant group of drawings, the practical use of preparatory studies in the process of painting. The tight exploration of the latter topic should be valuable to anyone interested in studio modeling in Dutch art. In an incredibly thorough catalogue of sixty-two extant paintings, a few works lost but known through reproduction, several questioned attributions, seventy-nine rejected works, an array of inventory and sales references that cannot be traced, seventeen accepted and eleven rejected drawings, and four accepted and three rejected prints, Van Noordt emerges as an important painter of histories and portraits in a shifting Amsterdam marketplace of the 1640s to 1670s.
Van Noordt should probably not be classified as a student of Rembrandt, especially on the evidence of the drawings which show little connection to Rembrandt’s manner, though he was certainly influenced by Rembrandt’s paintings. Two paintings of St. John the Baptist Preaching (cats. 10 and 11) place Van Noordt directly inside Rembrandt’s studio (as visitor if not pupil), as they are variations on Rembrandt’s painting of the same subject now in Berlin at a time between its initial painting stage of 1634 but before it was later enlarged. (It should be noted that Rembrandt’s painting was acquired by Jan Six in 1652, providing a terminus ante quem for the alteration.) Van Noordt returns to a rough style later in his career, but for the most part Rembrandt played only an occasional role, and even there one could argue Van Noordt’s links were more directly to the younger generation of Jacob Backer (with whom he likely studied) and Govert Flink. As with Drost, it is probably more fruitful to chart generationally-based connections around Rembrandt than it is to direct all sensibilities and influences back to the master himself. Van Noordt’s middle years show an interest in classical themes and portraiture, handled in a vigorous manner as much indebted to Bol as Rembrandt to my eye, but as De Witt maintains there is always an independence from the increasingly popular fine manner of Dutch Classicism. By the 1660s Van Noordt develops an interest in Flemish tastes, with Lievens entering the discussion along with Jordaens, who arrived with works for the Amsterdam Town Hall. In the 1670s Van Noordt displays an even more distinctive personal touch. The study is balanced and meticulous at every stage. De Witt is equally adept in the discussion of biography and market as style and iconology, and he weaves themes in the work of Van Noordt that constitute not only a useful catalogue, but a compelling monograph as well.