June 1, 2012

Jan Lievens

        Three or four years ago the art world rediscovered Jan Lievens.  Lievens was a contemporary of Rembrandt, born in the same town only one year later (1607-1674.)  Although he was compared favorably with Rembrandt when they were young, later in his life he moved from city to city and experimented with different styles, which may have been why art history tended to ignore him.  But Lievens had something going for him that, in my view, gives him an importance Rembrandt never achieved - Lievens made wood block prints.
        Not only did Lievens make woodcuts, which Rembrandt never even seems to have tried, but apparently he carved at least some of them himself.  This was still the era when most woodcuts were carved by master woodcarvers from drawings made by the famous artists.  It's true that many artists and woodcarvers worked together in a collaboration that seems to demonstrate a real meeting of the minds, but still, it's always interesting to me when an artist of that time period chose to do his own carving.  Did he believe he could more accurately capture his own vision if he did it himself?  Did he wish to master another technique?  Did he want to avoid the expense
of hiring a woodcutter?  Was he in too much of a hurry to wait for a carver to schedule his project?  Who knows.
        Most of Lievens's woodcuts are portraits, and they make it easy to see why he had a successful career as a portraitist.  His characters are portrayed smoothly and clearly, but with enough personality to make them seem like real people capable of capturing the imagination.  Although he may have carved most of his other blocks himself, this two block print was apparently carved by François Dieussart.  One block is the black lines - the "normal" relief block print part.  The other is the tone block, out of which were carved the highlights.  When it was printed with a midtone color, with the black block printed on top, it produced a chiaroscuro image, with its emphasis on lighting.
        This last example is interesting not only because it's a rare landscape among all Lievens's people, but also because it doesn't look carved.  The quality of the lines and shapes looks like an ink drawing.  On the one hand, you have to admire the carving skill that can duplicate that look.  But on the other hand, I like the look of carving, so it always seems a bit of a waste to hide it!  Still, I do like this little slice of scenery very much.



[Pictures: Philosopher with an hour-glass, woodcut by Jan Lievens, 1630-40;
Bust of a bearded man, facing right,  woodcut by Lievens, 1630-40;
Bust of an old man, full face, woodcut with one line block and one tone block by Lievens, 1630-40 (Images from the British Museum);
Landscape with a Group of Trees, woodcut by Lievens, c 1640 (Image from Smithsonian website, piece from the Rijksmuseum.)]

6 comments:

  1. Perhaps one reason to make a woodblock print that looked like a pen and ink drawing is that back in those days that was the only way you could make duplicate copies? I, too, like the landscape with its Group of Trees.

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  2. Absolutely. Lievens was probably not thinking of his woodcut as a woodcut, but rather as a method of reproducing a drawing. Still, some of his others do seem remarkably modern to me in exactly that respect - they seem as if they're starting to take advantage of the medium in its own right, which is something that's really possible only when the carver is the artist.

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  3. Thanks a lot Anne for posting this page on Jan Lievens' woodcut. I own an etching my him but was surprised he did such wonderful wooduts. I am an artist living west of Boston and have two webpages you might be interested in (I've added a link here on one of them.
    http://pantherpro-webdesign.com/heller/art_of_woodcutting.html The Art of Woodcutting
    http://helenwestheller.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/helen-west-heller/ Helen West Heller - an extraordinary woodcutter.
    I hope you will enjoy these.

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  4. For goodness sake's, after posting the above comment I saw your image in the circle and realized you were most likely the same Anne Nydam I worked with at D.H. in Wellesley. . . I visited your homepage and enjoyed viewing your works - especially the images from nature. Great to see you are thriving. All the best.

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  5. Hello, Scatt! Yep, that's me. I hope you're well and enjoying retirement from teaching.
    Thanks for your two links. Helen West Heller is one of the artists on my list to feature here at some point, so I'll certainly use those as resources when I do.

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  6. Anne, good to read your response. . . Yes, I'm well and enjoying a life beyond 38 years at D.H. . . I look forward to your upcoming feature on Helen West Heller - were you at DH when I curated the Heller exhibition in the D.H. Gallery? I am impressed with the quality of your recent prints - you have made great progress since I last observed work work. It's wonderful reconnecting. . . let's keep in touch. All the best.

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