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Jan Lievens
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Leiden, Netherlands
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
A brilliant and innovative painter, draftsman and printmaker during Holland’s Golden Age, Jan Lievens enjoyed immense fame during his lifetime but his subsequent reputation has suffered from comparison to his contemporary Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Born in Leiden in 1607, his early life was described in detail in a 1641 history of Leiden by Jan Jansz. Orlers (1570-1646), a Leiden burgomaster. He wrote that at the age of eight the precocious Lievens became the pupil of Leiden artist Joris van Schooten (1587–1651), learning both painting and drawing. Two years later he was sent to Amsterdam where he studied with Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) for about two years. Although Orlers wrote that Lievens had no other teachers and returned to Leiden after his studies with Lastman, his style in the early 1620s suggests to some scholars the influence of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, such as Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1651). No surviving document places Lievens in either Leiden or Utrecht in the early 1620s. He did eventually return to Leiden and soon found patrons there, including Orlers, who recorded that the Prince of Orange purchased a painting that was given to the English ambassador for the King of England. His themes included biblical, historical and allegorical subjects as well as portraits and figure studies known as “tronies.” Many of his drawings from this period (and the rest of his career) are finished works of art intended for sale, rather than studies for works in other media. Some 150 of his drawings survive. In 1625 Lievens began associating with Rembrandt, who had just returned to Leiden after some six months of study with Lastman in Amsterdam. The two young artists became close friends, shared the same models, and may have shared a studio. They both began etching in the mid-1620s. Their artistic styles became similar; scholars disagree over which of the two created some surviving drawings. Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), the secretary to the Prince of Orange, visited Lievens in his studio in 1628. The visit led to Lieven’s portrait of Huygens, which he described as one of “my most treasured possessions” (now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Huygens autobiography (written 1629-1631) noted the talents of the two young artists and the differences in their styles. Lievens received numerous commissions from the highest levels of society, and created works some scholars assess as the best of his career. In early 1632 Lievens abandoned his successful career in Leiden and went to London, probably influenced by the success there of Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Sources record portrait paintings created in London for the King and Queen and the aristocracy, but none survive. Several remarkable prints and drawings do survive from the three years he spent in England. Van Dyck’s painted portrait of Lievens is lost but an engraving after it is part of Van Dyck’s portrait series, The Iconography. Lievens left London for Antwerp in 1635, where he joined the artists’ Guild of St. Luke, became part of the active artistic scene and married the daughter of an Antwerp sculptor. His artistic style evolved to the international Baroque style of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Van Dyck and other Antwerp artists. The themes of his art expanded to include landscapes and genre scenes, reflecting the influence of Adriaen Brouwer (1605 or 1606-1638). At this time Lievens began designing (and may have cut) woodcuts, creating eight to ten, and continued etching and drawing, producing several excellent portraits. Despite numerous commissions, including one for the Leiden City Hall, he suffered financial difficulties and in 1643 his property was seized by his creditors. Apparently seeking new clients, in 1644 he moved with his family to Amsterdam. He received a commission from the House of Orange in 1647 for a work for a summer palace near The Hague, another in 1652 from the Elector of Brandenburg for works to decorate a palace near Berlin, and numerous portrait commissions from wealthy citizens of Amsterdam. Commissions for paintings apparently left him little time for printmaking; he apparently made only four etchings after 1644. In all, he probably created some sixty etchings. Lievens moved to The Hague in 1654 where he received a major public commission, but continued to receive major public and private commissions from Amsterdam, including a painting for the town hall. After he returned to Amsterdam in 1659, he received commissions for major public buildings. By the late 1660s Lievens was in continued financial difficulties. He moved to The Hague by 1670, and then to Leiden. The art market dried up during the war with France, leading to further financial difficulties. Impoverished, Lievens returned to Amsterdam in 1674 and died in June. (TNB 7/2012) Selected bibliography: Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., et al. Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered. Exhibition catalog. Washington: National Gallery of Art, and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.