Constantin Huygens, the influential secretary to three successive Stadholders and one of the most important patrons of the arts in the United Provinces, published in his 1631 autobiography that both Lievens and Rembrandt van Rijn were 'a pair of noble and young painters' (C. Vogelaar, et.al., Rembrandt & Lievens in Leiden, Zwolle and Leiden, 1991, p. 132).
Jan Lievens, the son of an embroiderer, hatmaker and hatseller in Leiden was born in that city in 1612. Considered an infant prodigy, Lievens became, at the age of eight, a pupil of the Leiden history painter and portraitist Joris van Schooten (c.1587-c.1653). He was sent to Amsterdam two years later to study, together with Rembrandt, under the famous history painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) before returning to his native city where he established his own practice.
Lievens' early work embraces various elements of contemporary Dutch painting including the Caravaggesque lighting favored by the school of Utrecht, the neo-classicism of Pieter Lastman, as well as a taste for reality typical of popular art in the Netherlands.
The present composition is datable to circa 1631 and depicts a boy, half-length, wearing an oriental turban and cloak fastened with a gold chain. Portraying sitters in Eastern dress was very much in vogue in Dutch painting during this period. In the early decades of the 17th Century the new Dutch State built a powerful colonial empire in the Middle East - indeed in 1623 the Shah of Persia recognized the Dutch East India Company. Persia was considered both exotic and bizarre and the 'Persianizing' fashion amongst Dutch painters appeared consistently from 1626/27, when Sultan Musa Beg made his trip to the Netherlands. Around 1628, at the peak of Lieven's career, the Stadholder Frederick Henry commissioned him to paint The Oriental (Bildergalerie, Sanssouci, Potsdam - fig. 1), a three-quarter length portrait of a Dutch gentleman dressed in the Persian fashion, with long robes, a turban and feathers (for further reading see H. Goetz, 'Persian costumes in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century', in Art Bulletin, XX, September 1938, p. 287 and H. Goetz, 'Oriental Types and Scenes in Renaissance and Baroque Painting-II', in The Burlington Magazine, LXXIII, September 1938, p. 105).
It is highly probable the present work is a virtuoso study of a young model in the artist's studio rather than a commissioned portrait. During the 1630s, tronies (uncommissioned physiognomic studies generally of elderly people), were popular in Rembrandt's Leiden circle, and the same models who posed for Rembrandt often in exotic dress (whether for tronies or other subject pictures), also sat for Lievens and Gerrit Dou. There is a striking resemblance between the present sitter and that of the young Alexander the Great in Aristoteles teaching the young Alexander by Dou (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam - fig. 2) and in the composition of the same subject by Lievens himself (J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu - fig. 3). Only Dou places the figure in Persian dress, but in both cases a convincing resemblance to the present sitter is evident and it would appear that both artists were using the same model.
In the present painting the boy strikes a comparable pose and wears similar clothing to the Potsdam portrait. But unlike it, this half-length portrait is more intimate. A young man, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked with slightly raised eyebrows fills the picture space and gazes dreamily out into the distance. The sumptuousness of his attire does not detract from the intensity of his expression but on the contrary showcases it, just as the dark background showcases the clothes themselves. This intensity is accentuated by an invisible source of light to the sitter's right that lays emphasis on his physiognomy. Lievens has paid particular attention to the flesh tones and has used impasto very deftly in order to convey this luminosity, notably on the links of the chain attaching the sitter's cloak, in the patterns on his turban and in the Bird of Paradise feather adorning it.
Lievens' outstanding talent as a portraitist is in full evidence here - as Huygens wrote: 'in painting the human countenance he [Lievens] wreaks miracles, one would be rendering him good service by endeavoring to curb this vigorous, untameable spirit whose bold ambition is to embrace all nature, and by persuading the brilliant painter to concentrate on that physical part which miraculously combines the essence of the human spirit and body' (Vogelaar, op. cit.,