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Milwaukee Art Museum Announces Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered
Jan Lievens (Dutch, 1607–1674), Landscape with Willows, early 1640s. Oil on panel, 11 x 16 1/8 in. Frits Lugt Collection, Institut Néerlandais, Paris. 2787

MILWAUKEE, WI.- The first U.S. exhibition of the work of Jan Lievens (1607–1674), one of the great Dutch artists of the 17th century, will be on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum February 7–April 26, 2009. Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered challenges the artist’s place in art history, calling into question why the artist has only been studied in the shadow of his more famous contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn.

Jan Lievens remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic Dutch artists of his time. Daringly innovative as a painter, printmaker, and draftsman, the artist created powerful character studies, formal portraits, religious and allegorical images, and landscapes that were highly esteemed by his contemporaries. His work demonstrates a singular international style that combines the best of Netherlandish realism with the sensuous painting of Rubens, Van Dyck, and the Venetians.

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue will present an overview of the full range of Lievens’ career. More than 110 of the artist’s finest works will be presented including 50 paintings, 28 drawings, and 34 prints.

Lievens was a child prodigy, whose early works in Leiden were highly praised by his contemporaries and valued by princely patrons. His later career was marked by important civic and private commissions in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Berlin. Nevertheless, his name today barely registers in the public consciousness. The exhibition and catalogue suggest that his posthumous reputation waned after many of his works were mistakenly attributed to other masters—especially Rembrandt (1606–1669), with whom he had a somewhat symbiotic relationship—and because he worked in a remarkable range of styles, reflecting multiple influences from the various cities in which he lived.

“Jan Lievens is overdue for a longer art historical evaluation,” notes Laurie Winters, curator of earlier European art at the Milwaukee Art Museum, who conceived of the exhibition while viewing paintings by Lievens in a private collection. “The last exhibition of his work—which was in Europe, in 1979—was subtitled ‘A Painter in the Shadow of Rembrandt,’ reflecting the tendency in the 1970s and 80s to evaluate Dutch artists only in their relationship to Rembrandt. This is the first in-depth exhibition to consider the other significant aspects of Lievens’ remarkable career.”

Arranged chronologically, Jan Lievens includes such masterful paintings as Lievens’ youthful and penetrating Self-Portrait (c.1629–1630). Dendrochronological examinations have revealed that Lievens used an oak panel made from the identical tree that supplied the panel for Rembrandt’s Samson and Delilah, suggesting that they purchased their panels from the same maker and perhaps even jointly.

Completed when the artist was not yet 20 years-old, the early masterpiece The Feast of Esther (c.1625) depicts the dramatic moment from the biblical Book of Esther when the queen reveals to her husband, the Persian king, the plot to destroy all the Jews in the kingdom, including herself. Esther points to the conspirator, Haman, who draws back in terror as the king glares at him before ordering his death. The painting demonstrates Lievens’ connection to the Utrecht Carravaggisti, artists from Utrecht who had adopted the realism and dramatic light of Caravaggio.

Bearded Man with a Beret (c. 1630) is an expressive character study of the type Lievens made during his Leiden period. In contrast to the old man’s modest attire, Boy in a Cape and Turban (c. 1631) is one of the most beautiful and compelling portraits of a figure in the romantic Eastern dress popular at the time. The sensitivity of the boy’s face expresses a hesitancy that belies the grandeur. Executed when the two artists were working together and possibly even sharing a studio, Lievens’ Portrait of Rembrandt (c.1629), captures his colleague’s proud bearing and thoughtful countenance with a portrait-like precision.

Other highlights in the exhibition include Prince Charles Louis with His Tutor, as the Young Alexander Instructed by Aristotle (1631)—painted for the king and queen of Bohemia—and The Lamentation of Christ (c.1640), an Antwerp period altarpiece that reflects the influence of Anthony van Dyck.

Among the works on paper are The Raising of Lazarus (1630–1631), an etching Lievens made after a painting of the same subject (also in the exhibition), and Village Street with a Windmill (c. 1650s), one of a number of Lievens’ landscape drawings from his Amsterdam period.

Lievens and Rembrandt were born in Leiden just over a year apart, studied with the same master, Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), and lived near one another until about 1632. Many parallels exist between the works that each produced in Leiden in the 1620s and early 1630s. Even though Lievens’ career began earlier, he was often wrongly described as a follower or student of Rembrandt. It is proposed in this exhibition and catalogue that, in many respects, Lievens was the initiator of the stylistic and thematic developments that characterized both artists’ work in the late 1620s.

Lievens’ late work has been consistently neglected, partially because earlier historians believe that he lost his way after leaving Rembrandt’s orbit, and succumbed to the influence of the great Flemish master Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) upon his move to London in 1632 in search of courtly success. In fact, after he moved to Antwerp in 1635—where he thoroughly adapted the prevailing taste for Flemish modes of painting—Lievens achieved the international renown he so desperately sought. After his return to the Netherlands, he received important commissions in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Berlin.

Among the reasons Lievens’ later years have been overlooked was that his frequent moves kept him from fitting into historical assessments of the period, which generally focus on the stylistic character of the time. It was not until the mid-20th century that Lievens’ body of work began to be reassessed and a number of important works, wrongly attributed to Rembrandt and other artists, were recognized as being by his hand. Many of these paintings, as well as some recent discoveries, are in the exhibition (cat. 11; cat. 21).

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