Jan Lievens at the MAM

Jan. 31, 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 head and give them a good shake. Prompted by Milwaukee Art Museum’s Laurie Winters 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 the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam has helped reopen a chapter of the story of art: one that concerns a largely overlooked seventeenth 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 in the museum’s Baker/Rowland Gallery. 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 a range of influences that includes  the Utrecht Carravagesti, Rubens and Van Dyck.



The exhibit title sums up what little is known of the Leiden born artist. A contemporary of Rembrandt van Rijn - also a Leiden native – until now 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 prompts a more rigorous understanding of the context within which they worked.


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


One of those overlooked aspects that Jan Lievens’ work brings to bear 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. Just around the corner is an early example of the oriental genre while the adjoining room contains 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?” asks Arthur Wheelock. 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 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 in order to eek out a living – a reality that sits uncomfortably with the prevailing notion of the starving artist.


Most importantly the exhibit also sets out to overturn the notion Lieven was a student of Rembrandt with the fact that 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,” says Wheelock. “He is really instigating a lot of the new approaches to art that were going on in Leiden in the 1620s.”


 Part of this misapprehension arose from the fact that until recently many of Lievens paintings were misattributed to Rembrandt. As she leads me around the exhibit, coordinating curator Laurie Winters points out one work that was even mistakenly ascribed to Titian! 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, and according to Winters “happens more often than you would think.”



She believes Lievens’s 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,” says Winters.


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 cataloguing their collection and developing stories and legends about their nation’s artists.” Says Winters. “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 and artistic 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.


For more information on the Lievens exhibit and related events go to www.mam.org.





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