Jan Lievens was a prodigious artist and one of the foremost Leiden painters of the seventeenth century. Lievens’ work displays great versatility and a propensity for successful stylistic and technical experimentation. His close artistic relationship with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) led to the development of the tronie. These were paintings from life of ordinary men and women, often portrayed in exotic costume. The tronie developed into a popular genre in its own right which Rembrandt painted throughout his career and which influenced artists like Gerrit Dou (1613–1675) and the Monogrammist I.S. (active 1633–1658).
At the age of eight, Lievens became an apprentice to Joris van Schooten (1587–1651) in Leiden. He moved to Amsterdam in 1617 to study with the history painter Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), who later taught Rembrandt. In 1619, Lievens returned to Leiden and opened a workshop at the precocious age of twelve, where he produced allegories and religious scenes. His expressive chiaroscuro of this period is very closely related to that of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, especially Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) and Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595–1624). The Utrecht influence subsided after Rembrandt’s return to Leiden in 1624, which in turn announced the beginning of a close professional relationship between Lastman’s two former students. Lievens and Rembrandt entered a long and fruitful phase of productive competition, even sharing a studio, during which time their styles overlapped to the point that their early works can hardly be distinguished. Their work was admired early on by Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange and his powerful secretary, Constantijn Huygens. The latter commissioned Lievens, aged twenty-one, to paint his portrait (ca. 1628–29) now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Their early success led them into different directions, Lievens leaving for London whereas Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam. Lievens spent a few years at the powerful Court of Charles I in 1632 where he most likely joined Anthony van Dyck as a workshop assistant. In 1635, Lievens moved to Antwerp and was registered as a member of the Guild of St Luke. This period represented a radical shift away his early Dutch realism and monochrome palette in favour of the expressiveness of Rubens’ Antwerpian Baroque, which he would maintain throughout his later œuvre.
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Books on Jan Lievens
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Anonymous Portraits: Dutch Seventeenth-century Tronies, exh. cat. New York, 2019.
Gabriele Groschner, Zwei Junge Wilde der Malerei und die Überwindung der Bildfläche: Figurenportraits von Rembrandt van Rijn und Jan Lievens aus der Sammlung Residenzgalerie Salzburg, 2018.
Blaise Ducos and Dominique Surh, Masterpieces of the Leiden Collection, exh. cat. Paris, 2017.
Stephanie S. Dickey, Rembrandt and his Cirlce: Insights and Discoveries, Amsterdam, 2017.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr, ed., Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Revisited, exh. cat. New Haven, 2008.
Christiaan Vogelaar, ed., Rembrandt and Lievens in Leiden, exh. cat. Zwolle and Leiden, 1991.
Cornelis de Bie, Het Gulden Cabinet vande Edel Vry Schilder-Const, 1662, reprint, Antwerp, 1971.