This intriguing, dramatically lit depiction of a young man, which is probably a self-portrait by the artist, posing as a commander in a yellow robe with gorget and baton and carrying his (invisible) sword on an embroidered baldric, has a chequered history of attributions. As well as Rembrandt, his pupils Gerrit Dou, Ferdinand Bol and Salomon Koninck have been suggested as authors, and even Paulus Bor has been considered. The London dealer H.M. Clark was the first to propose the now universally accepted attribution to Jan Lievens, in 1921. Lievens enjoyed a considerable artistic reputation in his own day but has since been outshone by Rembrandt’s fame. Like his fellow artist, Lievens was born in Leiden, where he trained for two years with Joris van Schooten, subsequently becoming Pieter Lastman’s apprentice in Amsterdam from about 1618 to 1620. On his return to Leiden at the age of about twelve, Lievens set up his own studio in the family’s house.
The Leiden burgomaster Jan Orlers admired the ‘consummate skill’ of the precocious child and Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the stadhouder, praised Lievens as ‘a young man of great spirit, and great things may be expected of him’ (C. Vogelaar et al., Rembrandt & Lievens in Leiden, Leiden 1991; pp.132 & 138). When Rembrandt returned from his training with Lastman in 1625, he and Lievens worked independently in Leiden, though the two engaged in artistic exchange and competition. Lievens went to London (1632–5) and was active in Antwerp (1635–44) before settling in Amsterdam, where he was based for most of his remaining career. Although he received prestigious commissions in Holland and from the court of Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, in Berlin (1653–4), the last decade of Lievens’s career was overshadowed by domestic and financial difficulties, and he died in poverty.
When John Raphael Smith reproduced this painting in mezzotint in 1772 it was attributed to Dou and said to represent ‘Wallenstine’, Count Albrecht von Wallenstein, the supreme commander of the Habsburg armies during the Thirty Years War. The painting was sold with this fanciful but improbable identi cation as late as 1921. Most likely, this picture is what was known in Dutch as a ‘tronie’ (literally: face), a type of expression or costume study. Both Lievens and Rembrandt experimented with ‘tronies’ early in their careers, often featuring members of their families or their own likenesses. Lievens’s painting has indeed been described as a self-portrait. Due to the uneven lighting of the face it is di cult to compare to other known self-portraits of Lievens. However, it is likely that he modelled this ‘tronie’ on his own features, especially if we consider, for example, his Self-portrait of about 1629–30 in a private collection. Lievens combined it with exotic costume, like Rembrandt did in his Self-portrait, Aged 23, 1629 (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) or Self-portrait in Oriental Attire, 1631 (Petit Palais – Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Paris). Lievens’s painting was probably executed around the same time, 1630–1. It is larger than ‘tronies’ usually are, although another one from the same period, his Man in Oriental Costume, about 1629 (Bildergalerie, Potsdam), is of similar size. The commanding pose and rich costume would fitt well with Huygens’s observation made in 1631, of young Lievens suffering from ‘an excess of self-confidence’ (Vogelaar 1991, as above, p.133).
This text was originally published in Facing the World: Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei, 2016.