The Magazine

Rembrandt Lite

The versatility of an aging child prodigy.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Jan Lievens

A Dutch Master Reconsidered

Milwaukee Art Museum,

through April 26

For some reason, child prodigies abound in music and math, but they occur rarely in literature and almost never in the visual arts. One possible explanation is that music and math are closed systems that can, if necessary, be mastered to a degree of stunning competence without imagination or emotional maturity. But painting, like literature, seems to require both if one is to achieve any kind of success.

Picasso famously claimed that, by the age of 14, he was able to draw like Raphael; but as so often in his moments of self-assessment, he was lying. And Raphael, while we're at it, may have been a precocious draughtsman, but little that he produced before he was 20 was really noteworthy. Of the very few commonly acknowledged exceptions to the rule, two artists came of age, one hundred years apart, in the Dutch town of Leiden: Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533) and Jan Lievens (1607-1674), who is currently the subject of "Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered," a show that began at the National Gallery in Washington and is now at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Which of these two Leiden natives was the better painter is a matter worthy of debate. But it seems likely that only Lucas van Leyden achieved true greatness as an adolescent. The early Lievens surely qualifies as a child prodigy: He had his own studio by the age of 12, after he had apprenticed with the history painter Pieter Lastman. But as frequently occurs with such prodigies, in whatever discipline, the defining mark of his precocious success was his arriving early at a mastery that more conventional humans attained only later in their development.

Thus, his "Feast of Esther" (1625) is a sturdily competent, entirely professional, and somewhat charming product; but little distinguishes it from what a hundred other contemporaries were turning out. Lievens was well into his twenties before he began creating the works that have earned him a place in art history.

As one might expect in a show like this, the curators wish to make the best case for their subject. But the manner in which Lievens's career is presented--and in which, predictably, it has been received in the press--buys into the inaccurate and slightly annoying subtext that art historians have somehow been unfair to this rebel painter, that they have gone out of their way to favor the more "establishmentarian" Rembrandt, his friend, rival, and fellow Leiden native. Thus, in a generally balanced catalogue essay, curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. writes, "The cruel irony is that Lievens' artistic achievement .  .  . has come to be viewed almost exclusively in relation to Rembrandt during his early Leiden years. To the detriment of Lievens, those comparisons are nearly always tinged by the cult of genius that surrounds Rembrandt."

In truth, even at his best, which is rare, Lievens cannot really compete with Rembrandt, who is very often at his best. Once the air is cleared of that erroneous subtext, visitors will be in a better position to judge and enjoy Lievens's paintings, drawings, and prints, and to acknowledge that, even if he is not as forgotten as some would suggest, he deserves a wider audience than he has received.

Like Rembrandt, Lievens was a versatile artist who turned his hand to many of the genres available to the artists of his day: history painting, portraiture, landscape and genre scenes, even the occasional still-life. But while there is a self-consistent and sustained character to Rembrandt's multitudinous art, a somewhat sullen and introverted quality that is evident in both his earliest and latest efforts, Lievens, by contrast, is pluralistic, almost chameleon-like in his channeling of eight or so very different styles. Pieter Lastman and Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck, Adrian Brouwer, and any number of Caravaggio's followers make equal and powerful claims upon his allegiance.

But sometimes Lievens is his own man, and that is when he becomes interesting. If Rembrandt can be defined by his moody tenebrism, Lievens is equally defined by a lightness of touch and a brightness of palette that are visible even in works that are supposed to be somber. Rembrandt's earth tones define Dutch painting in a general way, but Lievens, as though through a natural affinity, yearns for the variegated palette of the south, of Naples and Rome. Despite the relentless reinventions of his career, despite his traveling to places like London, Antwerp, and Berlin, this is his one fairly fixed and constant point. There are few men of his dark century who were quite as enamored of light as Lievens.

"Profile Head of an Old Woman" (ca. 1630), one of his best works, is a good example of this affinity. Among the many excellences of this bright image is the naturalism of the sitter's sunken cheeks and drooping eyes, and the translucent veils that cover her head and, at the top, achieve a painterly bravura that calls to mind the kinetic drip patterns of Jackson Pollock.

The same blond tonalities ignite a "Young Girl in Profile" (1631), one of Lievens's finest achievements. This composition is dominated by the child's billowing hair and a complexion that calls to mind several overripe fruits. From the same year, "Bathsheba Receiving King David's Letter" depicts a female figure who could be a younger version of "Old Woman" and an older version of "Young Girl." This time her shimmering hair spills over her shoulders, achieving the delicacy of silver-point.

Ten years later a slight murkiness has begun to infiltrate and adulterate Lievens's clarity, but even in a work like "The Lamentation of Christ," a shimmering brightness remains the conceptual basis of the painting, and continues to dominate its center, whatever darkness might have begun to gather at the edges. This painting demonstrates the artist's admirable skill in depicting anatomy. It also attests to a compositional flair that is even more evident in "The Raising of Lazarus" (1631), one of the most original images of the 17th century.

Presaging the Symbolist movement by more than 250 years, "Lazarus" embodies the same operatic spirituality that one finds in that later movement. As Christ stands above the tomb of Lazarus, the painter, through a stroke of compositional genius, allows the brilliantly lit shroud to spill downward into the grave, from which two ghostly hands emerge.

Such originality is rare in Lievens's later paintings, whose colors turn somewhat muddier (without ever quite losing their defining brightness) and whose details lack the exquisite sharpness of his earlier work. Above all, his compositions become awkward as he aspires to a complexity that, more often than not, escapes his control. Still, with roughly 50 paintings on view, together with 40 drawings and an equal number of prints, this exhibition has enough to satisfy anyone up to the task of separating what is truly good from what is merely good enough.

James Gardner is the former architecture critic for the New York Sun.