Rembrandt or Lievens?

A Magus at a Table by Jan Lievens

Advances in the technical analysis of paintings have shed new light on the attribution of an enigmatic painting at Upton House in Warwickshire. Christine Sitwell, our Paintings Conservation Adviser, explains the process by which the painter of this work was determined.

Contested attributions

The attribution of the painting 'A Magus at a Table' at Upton House has long been the subject of debate.

The painting depicts an old man in a skull cap, supporting an open book on his left arm, leaning on a table. Despite the dimness of the interior, candlelight illuminates the opulence of certain details including the sheen of the man’s robe and the golden brocade of the tablecloth. Above this, there is a faint trace of a leafy branch. In the darkened background, a chair sits beneath the heavy folds of a curtain. The painting is signed ‘Rembrandt f.16.’ in the lower left corner.

Jan Lievens (1607-1674), A Magus at a Table (detail), c.1631-1632 / NT446728
A Magus at a Table by Jan Lievens

The presence of Rembrandt’s name, however,  does not make the matter of artistic attribution a straightforward case. During its history, the painting has been variously attributed to Rembrandt, to Rembrandt and his circle, and to Rembrandt’s contemporary, Jan Lievens. By 1983, it was widely thought to be a copy after a lost original by Lievens. 

Original or copy?

In 2014, the painting underwent technical analysis and conservation. Advances in X-radi­ography enabled a greater understand­ing of the preliminary composition, revealing elements of an initial sketch that deviate from the finished painting we now see.

When the X-ray was overlaid on the panel, several changes were immediately apparent. The man appeared to be slightly hunched, as if he had just stood up. The chair was positioned nearer to him. He seemed to be holding a candle and the book was laid on the table and not his forearm. The large curtain was hung higher and the curtain folds gathered more closely together. 

Overlay of X-ray image: the outlines in red show evidence of pentimenti and the original placement of objects by the artist
Overlay of X-ray

The fact that numerous el­ements in the original composition were subsequently modified offered crucial evidence that the painting was not a copy, but instead an original work. Indeed, conservators often look for the absence or presence of ‘pentimenti’– alterations made by the artist during the process of painting – to help distinguish an original painting from a copy.

Furthermore, the use of X-ray fluorescence allowed for the investigation of paint layers in a non-invasive manner. By scanning for a particular element, conservators can infer the presence of a particular pigment. In the Upton painting,  copper – an indication of green – was found in the area above the table. The hazy leafy branch was thus revealed to have originally been a verdant, floral spray in a vase.

Macro XRF image showing the presence of copper which reveals the floral spray and vase
Macro XRF image of 'A Magus at a table'

This process also revealed changes in colour. These were most evident in the tablecloth, which was originally green, then red with light purple detailing, and finally gold and silver. Such modifications in colour are suggestive of a unique, creative process. Again, it became clear that the Upton painting was an original artwork and not a copy.

Rembrandt or Lievens?

Having established that the Upton painting was not a copy after an original, but rather, the prime version, there was still the matter of authorship to determine.

There are many parallels in the lives of Rembrandt van Rijn and Jan Lievens. They were both born in Leiden – Rembrandt in 1606, Lievens in 1607. Both apprenticed with Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. It is possible they shared a studio and it is certain that they shared models and painted each other. By the 1630s, Rembrandt and Lievens employed similar compositions and subjects, and as a result their work from this period can be difficult to tell apart.

Ultimately, however, Rembrandt would achieve unrivalled posthumous fame and Lievens would be relegated to his shadow. For this reason, Rembrandt’s ‘signature’ was often added to the works of lesser-known contemporaries and followers. It is possible this is what happened to 'A Magus at a Table'.

Given this, it was important to contextualise these scientific discoveries within the art historical framework. Lievens is widely regarded for his inventiveness and bold compositions. His final paintings often deviated from his preliminary sketches; indeed, extensive reworking during painting is more typical of Lievens than of Rembrandt.  This, coupled with the information yielded by the technical analysis, has allowed for the definitive attribution to Lievens to be made. 

Perhaps in time, if technical analysis continues to provide more certain attributions, Jan Lievens will emerge from Rembrandt’s shadow as a comparable master of the Dutch Golden Age.

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