Exhibit of the week
Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Through Jan. 11

“Do not feel you are hopelessly out of the cultural loop” if you’ve never heard of Jan Lievens, said Ann Landi in The Wall Street Journal. When the National Gallery announced it would devote a large exhibition to this 17th-century painter, even many art aficionados said, “Who?” In his own time, Lievens was known throughout Europe, and was a favorite in many noble courts. But as centuries passed, many of his paintings were erroneously reattributed to his friend and rival Rembrandt. The relationship between the two painters is the real subject of this exhibition, which daringly “proposes that in many respects Lievens was the initiator of stylistic and thematic developments that characterized both artists’ work.”

I’m not quite ready “to declare him greater than the great Rembrandt,” said Blake Gopnik in The Washington Post. But at the very least, “the artists tied.” Lievens worked in a wider variety of styles than Rembrandt, and earned a fine living painting portraits of wealthy patrons. He seems superior to Rembrandt at capturing a likeness, if not a sense of a subject’s psychology. Both artists also “etched heads that weren’t admired as portraits of known people but as impressive life-studies of peculiar, anonymous types,” and in a few cases, paintings of similar subjects allow us to make more or less direct comparisons. One “stunning” Lievens painting, Raising of Lazarus, shows Jesus standing above an open grave, from which two thin hands emerge. The dark, haunting scene far exceeds any Rembrandt made of the subject.

It’s always exciting when “a neglected talent is recovered from the dustbin of history,” said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. Yet let’s not kid ourselves. Lievens “was not, after all, that wonderful a painter.” His faces can sometimes be cartoonish, and his “big, sugary” allegorical paintings can seem sentimental. It’s true that certain elements in the paintings are as good as anything of Rembrandt’s: the “glowing blond hair” of a young girl; some comical pictures of brawling peasants; and an “amazingly bold” scene of revelers painted when he was just 15. But Lievens worked in such a variety of styles and mediums that he never achieved real mastery of any. As this child prodigy grew into a wealthy artisan, “he seems to have lost touch with his own creative center.”