This poignant and reflective depiction of a man in old age has been dated by Bernhard Schnackenburg to 1632, placing it towards the end of a highly fertile period of artistic exchange between Lievens and Rembrandt in Leiden, which the leading Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering has hailed as: ‘one of the pivotal moments of art history, that can perhaps best be compared with the meeting of Picasso and Braque, that was to lead to the development of Cubism’ (The Mystery of the Young Rembrandt, Amsterdam, 2001, p. 49). Rembrandt’s mythical fame eventually overshadowed Lievens’ posthumous reputation, however, it is now argued that the more experienced and self-assured Lievens would have been the driving force and dominant personality at this decisive moment (ibid., pp. 39 and 51).
A child prodigy, Lievens returned to his native Leiden in 1919, having completed his training with Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, and immediately started to produce independent works of remarkable quality. Jan Janzs. Orlers, Mayor of Leiden and an early biographer of the artist, noted: ‘His consummate skills astounded the numerous connoisseurs of art who found it hard to believe that a mere stripling of twelve or scarcely any older could produce such works’ (cited in A.J. Wheelock, Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered, Washington, 2008, p. 288). Lievens and Rembrandt, who had also studied under Lastman in Amsterdam, began to collaborate in 1625, possibly even sharing a studio. So close was their collaboration at this time that it is often difficult to determine the authorship of their respective paintings and drawings.
A testament to their creative interaction, Lievens and Rembrandt would sometimes use the same models in their tronies and subject pictures. The sitter in this work, with his distinctively craggy appearance, features in a drawing by Rembrandt in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig. 1), and also in a painting of Saint Paul in Meditation (fig. 2; Nuremberg, Germanische Nationalmuseum). Similarly, he appears in a drawing now attributed to Lievens but previously thought to be a work by Rembrandt (Washington, National Gallery of Art), again underlining the close relationship of these two artists at this moment.
Lievens displays astonishing technical variety in this painting, from the smooth, polished rendering of the greyish blue mantle, to the bold and tactile brushstrokes of the sitter’s features. The beard is described with soft, feathery brushstrokes, while individual hairs are rendered using the end of the brush in the wet paint, exposing the ground beneath. This highly original technique was also adopted by Rembrandt, for example in his iconic Self-Portrait as a Young Man (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), and elsewhere by Lievens in his Bearded Man with a Beret (fig. 3; Washington, National Gallery of Art).
Demonstrating uncompromising powers of observation combined with a profound empathy for his subject, this painting validates Constantijn Huygens’ claim that: ‘In painting the human countenance, he [Lievens] wreaks miracles.’ (cited in W. van de Wetering, op. cit., p. 398).