The two most substantial groups of Lievens’s drawings are his landscapes and his portraits, but he also made a certain number of very accomplished figure drawings in pen and ink, works that reflect in some ways his drawings and paintings of other types, yet which also stand a little apart from anything else that he made, posing fascinating questions and challenges as regards attribution, dating and function. Only four of Lievens’s drawings of this type are signed, and in terms of date those drawings span almost his entire career, during the course of which he worked alongside Rembrandt in Leiden, spent three years in London, probably in Van Dyck’s studio, followed by eight years in Antwerp, before being based largely in Amsterdam for the rest of his career, but with significant sojourns in The Hague and Düsseldorf. Small wonder that Lievens’s stylistically varied figure drawings have often eluded their correct attributions, and indeed, the present drawing seems to have passed through a series of illustrious 18th and 19th-century English collections, including that of Jonathan Richardson, under the name of Agostino Carracci.
Of the four signed drawings of this type by Lievens, the most comparable in handling to this is the powerful half-length study of a bearded old man (fig. 1), in the Lugt Collection, which shares much of the distinctive combination of bold parallel hatching in the drapery, cursive, calligraphic lines in areas such as the hair, and rapid, angular treatment of facial features that are hallmarks of the present work.2 Also very close in style is a sheet of four head studies, in a private collection3, and, to a slightly lesser extent, the splendid, and rather more flowing, signed sheet of studies in Düsseldorf.4
With the exception of certain early works and some of his Amsterdam period chalk portraits, Lievens’s drawings are notoriously difficult to date, and none more so than his rare pen and ink figure studies. The parallel hatching that is so prominent in this drawing and the one in the Lugt Collection shows a clear link with Lievens’s very earliest, Leiden period drawings of the 1620s, but the format of the Lugt drawing seems to indicate a knowledge of Van Dyck, and in particular his great series of portrait prints, the Iconography. This might imply a dating to Lievens’s stay in London (1632-35), where he worked alongside Van Dyck, or to his subsequent Antwerp period (1635-43). A complication is, however, introduced by the traditional identification of the subject of the Lugt Collection drawing as Jan Francken, the servant of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, who would not have been as old as the man portrayed by Lievens until at least the 1650s; if it is indeed a portrait of Francken, that would push these drawings into Lievens’s later career in Amsterdam. On balance, a dating to the early or mid-1630s seems preferable on stylistic grounds, if still far from certain.
The other intriguing aspect of this impressive, large drawing is its subject, a complex figure group including two Franciscan monks in the centre, one of them praying, with various other elaborately dressed figures around them. It seems unlikely that this is an actual record of a religious event that Lievens witnessed, as some of the costumes, particularly, for example, the hat in the right background, seem perhaps earlier in date than the drawing. It could be a study, from the artist’s imagination, for a figure group in a painting of a biblical or historical subject, but one other possibility is that this actually represents a scene from a theatrical production. When he was working in Amsterdam in the 1640s-1660s, the circle that provided Lievens with the sitters for a number of his celebrated portrait drawings in black chalk included various artists, playwrights and literary figures5, so it would not be particularly surprising if Lievens also depicted a theatrical subject – as did Rembrandt in a number of his drawings.
1. See Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., et al., Jan Lievens, A Dutch Master Rediscovered, exh. cat., Washington, National Gallery of Art, Milwaukee Art Museum, and Amsterdam, Rembrandthuis, 2008-9
2. Paris, Fondation Custodia, inv. no. 2009; see P. Schatborn, Rembrandt and his Circle, Drawings in the Frits Lugt Collection, 2 vols., Paris 2010, vol. I, pp. 285-7, no. 116, reproduced vol. II, p. 131.
3. G.M.G. Rubinstein, ‘Three Newly Identified Figure Drawings by Jan Lievens,’ in Liber Amicorum Dorine van Sasse van Ysselt, The Hague 2011, pp. 55-56, fig. 5
4. Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum, inv. no. FP 5092; see exh. cat., op. cit., Washington et al., 2008-9, no. 120
5. For example the portrait of Jan Vos, Frankfurt-am-Main, Städel Museum, inv. 836; exh. cat., op. cit., Washington et al., 2008-9, no. 118
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