This picture, which has only recently come to light, is an important early work by Jan Lievens, painted circa 1624-5. We are grateful to Professor Bernhard Schnackenburg for the following note:
Four men, two of them clearly characterized as soldiers by their helmets and breastplates, have gathered around the table of an inn and play cards. The landlady to whom they all already owe almost four drinks each (chalked on the blackboard behind) appears behind a jolly juvenile smoker in a plumed beret. The man with the helmet in the foreground triumphantly shows his co-player the ace of hearts beating the other man’s five. The coins next to the cards indicate that they are gambling. Since the 15th Century scenes of that kind have been used to illustrate human vices such as laziness, waste and avarice as well as fraud although no clear hint of the last can be found in this picture.
This painting was formerly thought to be by Gerrit van Honthorst, an attribution confirmed by René Tonus in Brussels in a certificate dated 3rd October 1927. At that time Lievens’ signature was concealed by surface dirt and varnish. The first to recognise it as an early work by Jan Lievens was B.J.A. Renckens of the R.K.D in the Hague, together with R.E.O. Ekkart, with whom he discussed it, in 1976, on the basis of photographs. In a letter dated 7th April 1976 Renckens pointed out the close similarities with Lievens’s early work The Tric-Trac Players, now in the Spier Collection, which was published for the first time by Schneider in his Lievens catalogue raisonné and exhibited in 2001 in the exhibition The Mystery of the Young Rembrandt, where the author discussed it in a larger context. (Fig. 1).
These two works are so closely connected that we can assume a similar date of execution. The subject of gambling, the composition of four and five half length figures, partly characterized as soldiers, pressed in a limited space and assembled around a table set in the direct foreground are comparable. These two almost square paintings correspond in their measurements and in the use of canvas, which was typical for the Utrecht Caravaggists, but not for Lievens. Therefore its use in these, some of his earliest paintings is remarkable. In the light of this, and of the alternative forms of gambling that they depict, it is indeed likely that they may be regarded as pendants.
Nonetheless the impression we gain while looking at them both is more one of difference than of formal resemblance. The Tric-Trac Players is comparably light in colour and the paint has been applied in thin layers. The brush strokes appear hesitant and partly unsure. The rediscovered Card Players on the other hand was executed in full and luscious colours with thick lights. Lievens’ expressive, rough technique reveals a self-confidence that already attracted the attention of his contemporaries: primus inter pares that of Constantijn Huygens. Even today his confident, bravura way of painting, which strives for monumentality, strikes us as unusually powerful and impressive. This is by no means a singular case. If one looks at small details such as how the light on the fingers or the contours of the fingernails are painted one realises the strong stylistic resemblance between The Card Players and one of the artist’s best-known early works: the historically documented painting depicting The Five Senses in one Picture in a private collection;  as well as The Penitent St. Magdalene in the museum at Douai.
The second difference between these two inn scenes concerns their lighting. The tric-trac game takes place in full daylight, whereas the card players are seen in artificial light of which the source is hidden. It seems as if the young artist was more interested in emphasising differences and in showing the progress he had made with his work than in the decorative character of pendants depicting closely related subjects. These two works constitute an impressive example of the keen interest in experimentation that drove both Rembrandt and Lievens forward in their early years, and which can be discerned in almost every new painting they produced.
The connection between Lievens’s early work and that of the Utrecht Caravaggists has been described in detail. The Card Players can be regarded as a prominent example of the influence of that style on Dutch painting. Thus, the earlier attribution of the picture to Gerrit van Honthorst was not so inconceivable. When exactly was it executed? The exact year after 1620 in which Jan Lievens started producing paintings that are known today is currently a matter of controversy among scholars. The artistic precursors of The Card Players are quite obvious. Jan Lievens followed the example of Gerrit van Honthorst, the most famous and influential painter of the Utrecht Caravaggists. His night scene of Card Cheats, which has only survived in the form of an accurate contemporary copy, provided the composition of four figures and a landlady watching them. The outer figures and the dark person in the foreground concealing the light correspond in both paintings. If one compares the space in which both painters leave their figures one can see that Lievens prefers a more crowded, narrow composition. The prototype for Lievens’s goateed soldier with the high helmet and the slit robe was a figure in Honthorst’s painting The Denial of St. Peter today in an English private collection. Although this painting counts among Honthorst’s early Roman works its composition must have been known in Holland after 1620. Judson and Ekkart date the painting Card Cheats around 1622-24. Thus, a date of execution for the present picture before 1624 is hardly thinkable. 1624 is also the first year in which Jan Lievens is mentioned in the historical source texts as professional painter selling pictures.
The painting bears a label on the reverse: Van Honthorst, Gerard/Ecole Hollandaise XVII siecle/Les Joueurs de Cartes/toile haut. 096;Larg 1.05. and another label with an old inventory number : 7209.
Dr. Arthur Wheelock and other curators of the upcoming exhibition on Jan Lievens at the National Gallery of Art, Washington in 2008, would be grateful for a loan of this picture, after it has been preserved and restored.
 Offered with this lot.
 H. Schneider, Jan Lievens, Sein Leben und seine Werke, Haarlem 1932, reprinted with Supplement by R.E.O. Ekkart, Amsterdam 1973, p. 128, no. 146 , p. 328, no. 146, reproduced plate 2; W. Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, Landau/Pfalz 1983ff, vol. III, no.1178; B.Schnackenburg in E. van de Wetering, B. Schnackenburg, Der junge Rembrandt, Rätsel um seine Anfänge/ The Mystery of the Young Rembrandt, exhibition catalogue, Staatlichen Museen Kassel/ Museum het Rembrandthuis Amsterdam 2001/02, pp. 100-102, 148, no. 8, reproduced p. 149.
 Original Latin text in his diary of 1629 or 1630; see Schneider, op. cit., pp. 290-2. English translation in Schnackenburg et al, 2001, op. cit., pp. 396-9.
 Oil on oak panel, 78.2 by 124.4 cm.; see Schneider, op. cit., no.107; Sumowski, op. cit., no. 1179; Currently on long-term loan to the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. Jan Orlers mentions this picture in 1641 as in the collection of Adriaen van Leeuwen.
 Oil on panel, 68 by 55 cm.; Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse; see Sumowski, op. cit., no.. 1221.
 Oil on canvas, 125 by 190 cm.; Wiesbaden, Museum Wiesbaden; see J.R Judson, R.E.O.Ekkart, Gerrit van Honthorst 1592-1656, Doornspijk 1999, p. 205, no. 267, copy 1, reproduced plate156.
 Oil on canvas, 137 by 244 cm. See Judson & Ekkart, op. cit., p. 77, no. 55, reproduced plate 20 and in detail plate 20a (as painted in Rome, circa 1618).
 There was a dispute in Autumn 1624 between Jan Lievens and the Leiden collector Franchois Tortoralis lodged in a document dated 24 October; see Schneider, op. cit., p. 3, and R. van Straten, Rembrandts Leidse Tijd, 1606-1632, Leiden 2005, p. 29.
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