Whereas the majority of Lievens’ paintings represent historical, mythological or genre subjects, in his drawings the two largest groupings are the highly distinctive landscapes, and the strikingly original and accomplished portraits. Although Lievens is now considered to have been equally gifted and innovative in both these genres, in his own time his portraits were much more highly appreciated, and this may be why almost all of his best drawings of this type are by now housed in major museum collections. This superb example of a Lievens portrait is one of the finest remaining in private hands. Having passed through several celebrated collections, it last appeared at auction in 1986, and since that time no other major Lievens portrait drawing has been offered for sale.
In the earliest phase of his career, Jan Lievens trained and worked in Amsterdam and Leiden, and was the youthful artistic sparring-partner of his nearly exact contemporary, Rembrandt. Indeed, even though he was a year younger than Rembrandt, Lievens was the first of the two to find his artistic and professional feet, and although their careers soon took very different paths, Rembrandt gained a great deal from this early contact (G. Rubinstein, ‘Brief Encounter: The Early Drawings of Jan Lievens and Their Relationship with Those of Rembrandt,’ in Master Drawings, vol. XLIX, no. 3, 2011, pp. 352-370).
Around the time that Rembrandt moved away from Leiden to Amsterdam, Lievens first encountered another artist whose work was to have a profound influence on him, namely Anthony van Dyck, whom he met in The Hague, in the winter of 1631/32. At this time, Van Dyck was engaged in creating his extraordinary series of engraved portraits of fellow artists and other illustrious figures of the day, the Iconography, and in connection with this project he made a drawn or painted portrait, now lost, of the brilliant young Dutchman, to be engraved for this artistic and cultural ‘hall of fame’ (fig. 1). To have his image included in Van Dyck’s Iconography was a huge honor for Lievens, who was clearly in considerable awe of the great Flemish master’s courtly status and bearing, and also of his achievements as a portraitist.
Not long after this first meeting, Lievens followed Van Dyck to England, where he worked in the master’s London studio for some three years. Although there are very few paintings or drawings by Lievens that can be securely dated to his stay in London, the impact of the time he spent in Van Dyck’s studio was extremely important in his artistic development. When he left London in 1635, Lievens did not return to Holland, but moved instead to Antwerp, Van Dyck’s native city, where he remained until 1644.
Soon after he arrived in Antwerp, Lievens began making portrait drawings that were extremely similar in approach and format to Van Dyck’s Iconography prints and the preparatory drawings for them (such as the elegant image of Karel van Mallery, at Chatsworth, inv. 1001; C. Brown, Van Dyck Drawings, exhibition catalogue, New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, et al., no. 61). Like Van Dyck, Lievens concentrated at this time on depictions of artists, but whereas Van Dyck’s aim was to amass an encyclopaedic catalogue of images of the great and the good, Lievens’s Antwerp period portrait drawings mostly depict members of the group of Antwerp artists with whom he reportedly enjoyed an extremely lively social life. Perhaps the most brilliant of these early portraits, of Adriaen Brouwer, is every bit as stylish and accomplished as any of Van Dyck’s drawn portraits, and gives a first taste of what Lievens would subsequently achieve in this field, in which he was to become so celebrated (Paris, Fondation Custodia, inv. 1203; see Jan Lievens, A Dutch Master Rediscovered, exh. cat., Washington, National Gallery of Art, et al, 2008-9, no. 102).
After he moved to Amsterdam in 1644, Lievens continued to make black chalk portrait drawings of the same essential type, but we see a subtle yet unmistakable shift both in their style of execution and in the range of people that the artist chose to depict. Whereas some of the painted portraits that he produced even at a much later date showed considerable Van Dyckian qualities – the swashbuckling self-portrait (fig. 2) in the National Gallery, London, is a particularly good example – most of Lievens’s later portrait drawings are somehow more measured and personal, and less concerned than his earlier drawings with the reinforcing of status through elegance of imagery and style. During these years Lievens’s remarkable series of drawn portraits included images of the philosopher René Descartes, the statesman Constantijn Huyghens, the national maritime hero Admiral Tromp, the patrician mayor of Amsterdam Andries de Graeff, the poet, bon viveur and socialite Jan Vos, and many, many more of the key figures in the cultural, civic and social life of mid-17th century Amsterdam (Jan Lievens, A Dutch Master Rediscovered, nos. 112-118).
The sitter in the present drawing has not yet been securely identified, although Norbert Middelkoop, of the Amsterdam Museum, has kindly suggested that he may be Albert ten Brink (1614/15?-1659), inn-keeper of Amsterdam’s Oudezijds Herenlogement, who appears sitting on the far right of a civic guard painting by Govert Flinck (Amsterdam Museum, inv.nr.
SA 7318). Whoever this man was, though, the superbly casual authority of his pose and his knowing expression both convey very clearly that he was someone of considerable personality and standing. That, and the measured energy of the handling, both suggest that the drawing dates from soon after Lievens’s return from Antwerp, i.e. from the second half of the 1640s. Any more precise dating will, though, have to await a definitive
identification of the sitter.
The portrait drawings of Jan Lievens, and particularly those of his later, Amsterdam years, have no real parallels or rivals in 17th-century Dutch art. They have rightly been prized since the time when they were made, and remain so today, as uniquely brilliant works that capture with penetrating insight the essence of the sitters’ characters, while still always depicting these people with great sympathy and supreme elegance. This is the most important Lievens portrait drawing to have appeared on the market in three decades, and one of the greatest that is still in private hands.
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