In his classic essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume asked how we could tell whether a given work was a masterpiece. “Durable admiration” was the criterion he offered. Which is to say, it’s not so much our judgment as the judgment of the ages that does the sifting. Faced with the work of our contemporaries, we can announce our likes and dislikes, but we must wait upon the dispassionate adjudications of time to arrive at any authoritative discriminations. When it came to matters of aesthetic judgment, authority, for Hume, was largely a posthumous energy.
I thought about Hume’s thesis as I made my way through one of this season’s most engaging exhibitions: “Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered.” I saw the show twice, once at the National Gallery in Washington and once at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where it is on view in Santiago Calatrava’s dramatic building until April 26.
My guess is that, unless you are an expert in 17th-century Dutch painting, you have never heard of Lievens (1607–74). I hadn’t, or if I had, I promptly forgot the name. Yet during his lifetime, Lievens was widely considered the equal if not the superior of his friend and fellow Leiden-born artist Rembrandt. The diplomat and cultural impresario Constantijn Huygens, who met them both in 1628, decided that Rembrandt was “superior to Lievens in his sure touch and liveliness of emotions” but that Lievens displayed “greater . . . inventiveness and audacious themes and forms.”
This exhibition of some 140 paintings, etchings, and drawings aims to promote Lievens from his tenancy among the footnotes of art history to an honored place in the main text. Even a quick look at Lievens’s work shows that some such corrective is long overdue. The temptation of course lies in overstating the case. This is something that the curators by and large avoid. Their goal is to rescue Lievens from unjust obscurity, not to elevate him beyond his deserts.
The story of Lievens’s reputation offers a fascinating study in the vicissitudes of popular taste. A year younger than Rembrandt, Lievens was clearly the more precocious of the two. Indeed, Lievens began his career as a sort of Mozart of the art world, setting up shop at the age of 12. By 14, he was producing virtuoso works. By 16, he was capable of paintings like The Cardplayers, a work of considerable psychological penetration — the loser’s cuirass cannot defend him against the assaults of bad luck — as well as astonishing technical command. (The smiling chap with the blue sash and pipe, by the way, is almost certainly Rembrandt.)
In the scheme of things, the 1620s were not so long ago. But obscurity colludes with the voracious amnesia of time. Our knowledge of Lievens’s life and career consists of a dozen visible milestones interspersed by numerous question marks. We know the basic itinerary. A notable debut in Leiden. To London when he was 24: another brilliant performance, with commissions from Charles I and the Earl of Arundel. Lievens learned a lot about portraiture from Anthony van Dyck (b. 1599), who included him (but not Rembrandt) in the Iconography, his famous visual chrestomathy of notable artists.
The word “peripatetic” occurs frequently in discussions of Lievens. In 1635, he went to Antwerp, where he developed a more cosmopolitan style — what the curators refer to as an “international style” — absorbing something of the drama of Rubens, the elegance of Titian. The year 1644 found Lievens in Amsterdam, where Rembrandt’s star had risen and, following the death of his wife Saskia, was beginning to fade. He went to The Hague in 1654, back to Amsterdam in 1659, and then back to Leiden.
Lievens never achieved the celebrity or the riches that Rembrandt enjoyed at the apogee of his career, but like Rembrandt he died in poverty. In 1674, in his late sixties, he went back to Amsterdam with all his worldly goods in tow. His landlord refused to let him in without a deposit. He died in June, halfway to the obscurity that awaited him. Vita brevis, and ars only sometimes longa.
#page#History’s radar is not usually precise about figures such as Lievens. We know he was born of (as a contemporary patron put it) “respectable parents” — his father was a moderately successful embroiderer — in Leiden. We know he studied with Pieter Lastman, who was also Rembrandt’s teacher. We know that he and Rembrandt were friendly rivals. Did they briefly share a studio in Leiden? We aren’t sure. But their friendship shows itself in Lievens’s sympathetic portrait of Rembrandt (1629), and in the frequency with which he included him in his early canvases. The rivalry peeks out in other ways. At the instigation of Huygens, Lievens and Rembrandt painted several paintings on the same themes: the raising of Lazarus, for example. Rembrandt admired Lievens’s treatment sufficiently to acquire the canvas for his own collection. But Rembrandt was not above backdating some of his own work, presumably to suggest that he had pioneered rather than followed in the exploration of certain themes and modes of painting.
You cannot walk through this exhibition without acknowledging what the curators set out to teach you: that Jan Lievens was an extraordinary artist whose work encompassed history painting, Biblical allegory, landscape, and portraiture. Portraiture, in fact, was Lievens’s special strength. He had a knack for animating faces with character, and this exhibition features several memorable portraits. A drawing of René Descartes (mid-1640s), for example, depicts a more vulnerable, less stately personage than the famous oil portrait of the philosopher by Frans Hals, while Lievens’s portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman (1649), the first woman to attend university in the Netherlands and herself an accomplished artist, is a study in warmth and delicacy.
Is Lievens set to become a household name like Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, and van Dyck? No. In his excellent introductory essay for the catalogue, Arthur Wheelock remarks: “The cruel irony is that Lievens’s artistic achievement, whether in assessment of individual works or his entire oeuvre, has come to be considered almost exclusively in relation to Rembrandt during his early Leiden years.” This exhibition both underscores that irony and inspires a new appreciation for the wisdom of tradition.
Wheelock offers several reasons for Lievens’s failure to enter the canon as conspicuously as Rembrandt. He was a Dutch artist who rarely painted in the Dutch style. He exuded brio, but not clarity or precision. He was adept at creating effects, but Wheelock is right about a “labored” quality to his modeling and sometimes “muddy” paint handling.
Lievens was good at inveigling commissions from the great and influential. He endeavored mightily to give them what they wanted, which helps account for his immediate success. He was less skilled at inveigling a consistent artistic vision from himself. He was something of a chameleon, not in the sense of changing frequently — though he did that as well — but in the sense of absorbing influences promiscuously. The word “Rembrandt” adumbrates a mood, a quality of perception, as well as a particular artist. There is no correlative sensibility that we can attach to Jan Lievens. He was too miscellaneous in his achievement.
His technical mastery was dazzling, and always brash. Constantijn Huygens accused both Lievens and Rembrandt of “stubbornness” and an excess of “self-confidence.” But Rembrandt negotiated that final hurdle to greatness that Lievens never managed: He matured into himself. Lievens never quite stopped being precocious, which means that there always remained something penultimate about his development. He was bursting with talent, fired by ambition, buoyed by that self-confidence that Huygens registered. But there was an omnivorousness about Lievens that impeded him from evolving from the propaedeutic activity of mastering styles to the consummate achievement of creating one. Arthur Wheelock and his colleagues have done yeoman’s service recovering Lievens from the margins of art history.
– Mr. Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books, and co-editor and publisher of The New Criterion.