The Magazine

Rembrandt Lite

The versatility of an aging child prodigy.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By JAMES GARDNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"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.