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Who is Jan Lievens?


Last updated 10/8/2018 at 4:14pm

Jan Lievens' self portrait c. 1629

Inglis Carre'

Special to the Village News

I am looking at a picture of a sumptuous painting portraying an episode of the biblical story of Esther. "The Feast of Esther," painted c. 1625, has always been attributed to Rembrandt in art texts, and was last sold in 1952 as a Rembrandt. It is just one of many works that have now been discovered to have been painted by Jan Lievens.

The confusion is understandable, considering that Rembrandt and Lievens were contemporaries, born 15 months apart in the same town in western Holland. They apprenticed to the same painting master, Pieter Lastman, at a young age. They shared models, art supplies and possibly a studio. They even modeled for each other.

Their early work is almost impossible for experts to tell apart, even though they admit that Lievens' paint handling shows more liveliness and physicality than Rembrandt's, and there are some who thing that Rembrandt learned this from him.

The most interesting part of the story happens after the two boys left the studio of Lastman to begin their own careers as artists in their hometown. After a time, Lievens traveled to London while Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam where he spent the rest of his life. After London, Lievens went from place to place: Amsterdam, The Hague, Leiden (his hometown), and Antwerp.

He did commissions for statesmen and kings, absorbing new artistic influences as he went, adapting to changes in public tastes and changing to please his patrons. He kept up with the prevailing winds of the international art scene. His paintings continued to be brilliant and fashionable, but his personal style became less individual, somewhat more shallow.

Rembrandt, who stayed in one place and developed his own vision in comparative isolation, relied on selling prints as a major source of income while he refined his painterly expression of the human form by finer and finer nuances of light and shadow.

"The Feast of Esther" by Jan Lievens, c. 1625

Mood, character, religious meaning, and the effects of time and tragedy on the human face, were all expressed by his tender and sensitive manipulation of light. As his art became every more personal and distinctive, his contemporaries often found it unacceptable. Many felt his work was tasteless and too concerned with ugliness.

The end of their lives found these two old friends and rivals living along the same Amsterdam canal, the Rozengracht, in poverty and debt. Neither of them knew that history would elevate one of them while the other would drop into obscurity.

Inglis Carre', M.F.A., is an artist and Creative Power consultant, specializing in the development of individuality and self-expression. She can be reached at


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