In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

A detail from a self-portrait by Dutch master painter Jan Lievens.

In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

This Lievens still life was once attributed to his friend, contemporary and rival Rembrandt van Rijn.

"Jan Lievens" rewrites history of Dutch paintings

On the surface "Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered," the new exhibit that opened Friday and runs through April 26 at Milwaukee Art Museum, might look like just another lovely show of virtuoso painting by a centuries-old master you've never heard of.

But, in fact, this exhibit overturns previous notions of Dutch painting.

"This is an exciting moment," says Laurie Winters, curator of earlier European art at Milwaukee Art Museum. "(Curator) Arthur (K. Wheelock, Jr.) has done a fantastic job organizing the exhibition. We're delighted to have this great partnership. It's a great occasion for us. The scholarship for the exhibition is remarkable."

Although this is the first U.S. exhibition of works by Jan Lievens, born in Leiden, where his contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn, was born a year earlier, and the exhibition catalog is the first ever in English.

And the scholarship is indeed remarkable. Wheelock organized the show for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where he is curator of northern baroque painting. During his years of research, he's helped properly re-attribute 14 of the works in the show to Lievens. Nine of them had previously been thought to be the work of Rembrandt, including "The Feast of Esther," which had long been called Rembrandt's first important work.

Wheelock has also helped identify Rembrandt's face in four of the paintings in the show. No other Dutch artist - other than Rembrandt himself -- is thought to have painted van Rijn.

But most important of all, says Winters, is that Wheelock's scholarship and this exhibition finally begin to give Lievens his due. Although he was a year younger than Rembrandt and the two shared the same master, Lievens was a child prodigy and had painted a number of the fine works in the show before Rembrandt even picked up a brush.

One of the first works in the gallery, "Old Woman Reading," was painted when Lievens was barely a teenager.

"This is a kid only 14 years old," marvels Wheelock. "This is not (the work of) a little boy. He was confident in who he was."

So, talk of Lievens being a follower or disciple of Rembrandt's is, in retrospect, absurd.

"Lievens has unfortunately been in the shadow of this great artist and thanks to Arthur and others we are now able to pull him out of the shadows," says Winters.

Now that Lievens' work is laid bare in this exhibition, which amasses more than 50 paintings, nearly 40 drawings and a similar number of prints, art historians have been able to really get a sense of who Lievens was as an artist.

Wheelock says that unlike most painters of his day, Lievens had a worldly view and it clearly affected his work.

"In some ways Lievens is 400 years ahead of his time," Wheelock says. "He was an international artist . He worked in London, he worked in Berlin. He went from court to court, learning a new style and adapting his work as he traveled. By the time he returned to Amsterdam, his works had an international style."

So, it's perfectly natural to see hints of Venetian painter Titian and the realism and chiaroscuro of fellow Italian Caravaggio, alongside the "Dutchness" in Lievens' oeuvre.

Split into sections that explore periods of Lievens' career, the exhibition flows nicely, without over-stuffing the galleries with works. And some sections, notably the two facing, U-shaped panels that collect some important portraits on one hand and a cache of commissioned-at-court work, are especially engaging to viewers.

The exhibition, which was first on view in autumn at the National Gallery, travels finally to the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, where it opens in May and runs into August.

So, Milwaukee is one of a privileged few cities to get to see "Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered." And considering it's the first in 400 years, you'd best take advantage of its presence. Who knows, maybe there won't be another chance soon.

"They are incredibly powerful paintings," raves Wheelock. "This show has taught me more about Dutch art than any other show I've done. It's challenged what I've always thought."

It will likely do the same for you.


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