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Lievens’ Legacy

Art museum rediscovers a Dutch master

Feb. 3, 2009
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The canons of art history tend to be rather jealously guarded. Few historians have occasion to flip them on their heads and give them a good shake. But after being prompted by Laurie Winters of the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) and the thesis of his student Lloyd DeWitt, National Gallery of Art curator Arthur Wheelock was offered just such an opportunity.

Working closely with MAM and Amsterdam's Rembrandthuis, Wheelock has helped to reopen a chapter of the story of art concerning a largely overlooked 17th-century Dutch painter named Jan Lievens. Starting Feb. 7 local audiences will have a chance to see his work when "Jan Lievens: Out of Rembrandt's Shadow" opens at MAM.

More than 50 of Lievens' oil paintings and around 80 prints and drawings will be on display. Arranged more or less chronologically, the collection charts the artist's travels around northern Europe and his constantly evolving methods, from his bold beginnings to later works boasting a more international outlook and drawing upon influences such as Rubens and Van Dyck.

A Footnote

The exhibit title sums up what little is known of the Leiden-born artist. A contemporary of Rembrandt van Rijn, Lievens has featured as little more than a footnote beneath the name of his illustrious compatriot. Benefiting from advances in picture dating technology, the restoration of key paintings and the emergence of new biographical documents, the exhibit not only helps subvert popular perceptions of the relationship between Lievens and Rembrandt but also prompts a more rigorous understanding of the context within which they worked.

"Our perception of Dutch art, particularly in America, is very narrow," Wheelock says. "There's a whole different side of Dutch art that's very important and we're still trying to come to terms with it."

Among those overlooked aspects is the variety of styles and genres in which many of these artists worked. Alongside biblical episodes are mirthful depictions of bare-breasted women and dimly lit taverns, an early example of the Orientalism and somber scenes from Christ's life.

"This show is really at the extreme of range and genre and raises the question: Is this really as extreme as it seems?" Wheelock asks. For him the answer is no. "You can find lots of artists who worked in different genres, but we tend to think of them being much more limited in range than they probably were."

What's more, the artist's range not only attests to his unquenchable enthusiasm for his craft, but also reflects the practical realities facing artists of the day. In the absence of a strong public patronage system, they needed to court the tastes of a wide variety of private patrons to eke out a living.

Most importantly, the exhibit sets out to overturn the notion that Lievens was Rembrandt's student when in fact they were friendly rivals whose early careers were closely intertwined. If anything, Lievens is depicted as something of a leader.

"He was actively working in a very effective, powerful way even before Rembrandt starts out as an artist," Wheelock says. "He is really instigating a lot of the new approaches to art that were going on in Leiden in the 1620s."

Mistaken Identity

Part of this misapprehension arose because until recently many of Lievens' paintings were wrongly attributed to Rembrandt. In light of the recent controversy surrounding the true authorship of Goya's Colossus, this is by no means an isolated case in the art world. According to MAM's Laurie Winters, it "happens more often than you would think."

She believes Lievens' failure to achieve the same fame in posterity as his rival is owed to a number of circumstances, including the success he enjoyed during his lifetime compared to Rembrandt. "Rembrandt died a pauper in an unmarked grave and that was part of the fascination with him in the 19th century," Winters says.

Another reason may be the rising tide of nationalism in 19th- and 20th-century Europe. "During this period of nation-building, all these countries in Europe were preoccupied with cataloging their collection and developing stories and legends about their nation's artists," Winters says. "Lievens got a bit forgotten because he left Holland for London and then Antwerp and developed a style that was no longer recognizable as Dutch. So art historians didn't know how to fit him into the vocabulary of their textbooks."

She credits today's more global outlook as a better climate in which to reappraise his work. "You have contemporary artists today working in Paris and New York and Los Angeles, and even international artists not associated with one country," she says. "We're much more international, so we can sort of understand Lievens better now."

Whether this exhibit will revolutionize the way we look at Lievens remains to be seen. Suffice to say, if he remains a footnote to the name of Rembrandt, he'll at least be a better-understood one.




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