Jan Lievens, Moonlit Landscape with Venus and Adonis, c. 1635-40.
Lievens showed little interest in landscape as an independent art form in Leiden, before he worked in the sphere of Van Dyck in England c. 1632- 1635. His drawing of Westminster (Private Collection) recalls those by Van Dyck of Rye dating from nearly the same period, and show Lievens adopting new subject matter as part of his relationship to Van Dyck, who was essentially his new master and whose portrait style he closely imitated as well. As is typical of Lievens’s method, his styles of landscape paintings and drawings over the rest of his career remain recognizably Flemish in style and richly romantic. As in other kinds of subject matter, becomes a consumer of style in landscape art, absorbing the innovations of not only Van dyck but Rubens, Teniers, Brueghel as well as Brouwer. There is nothing, however to suggest the continued influence of Rembrandt, as Cynthia P. Schneider has done.
Again, in the vein of van Dyck and Rubens, Lievens turned to landscape as a venue for ambitious artistic experimentation, not as part of his primary history painting practice but to produce independent works of art. The incredible freedom of scumbling in three landscapes of c. 1635 (Kremer Collection, Duke of Westminster Collection and London, National Gallery) bear witness to this freedom and ambition from the beginning of his landscape painting practise.
His Landscape with Venus and Adonis shows the typical gradual thinning of paint, and stippling effect being used in his landscapes of the later 1630s and 1640s, in which he develops an economy of means, reflecting the influence of Rubens’s landscapes and his own drawing practice. The screened row of trees, a Rubensian effect, occurs in these as well. The Antwerp-branded panel is consistent with the c. 1639/40 dating of this work, however much your research points to c. 1634 The style of the painting does not supports such an early date in Lievens’ oeuvre. The unfinished work may have remained in his studio for some time. Lievens consistently worked up his paintings from brown sketches and stages that looked not unlike this painting. The landscapes in Rotterdam, the Lugt Collection and especially the Bader collection landscape have the same thin, unfinished quality. The switches (thin new trunks from the ground) leaning against the tree to the left appear again in the Bader landscape of c.1640. Lievens worked more of his paintings from this state to ever-increasing levels of impasto.
There is some reason to believe that this is the painting Rembrandt had in 1656, the “manen schijntie” listed in his front entrance hall in the inventory of his goods taken that year. Of all the known candidates, this painting comes the closest to being a moonlit scene. A landscape in Berlin which shows dusk and has no moon, was previously the closest candidate. This newly discovered work could have been acquired by Rembrandt as early as c. 1639-1640, when Lievens visited Holland to paint the Scipio for the Leiden Town Hall. While it would be unusual for the inventory take to mention the moon-lit painting but not the subject matter, the figures are not conspicuous in size or action. The two figures could have been mistaken for pastoral types which they so resemble, and which occur in more of Lievens’s landscapes, of which this was not the only example listed in Rembrandt’s house. While the addition of a mythological narrative to a landscape in a Lievens’s work of c. 1640 would be unusual, most of his landscapes of this period have at least some figures and the c. 1640 Tobias and the Angel in London also has a narrative.
The screen effect of the trees that dominate the long bluff to the right, an effect drawn from Rubens’s landscapes that are a dominant influence around this period, specifically works like the moonlit landscape in the Courtauld collection of c.1635. Lievens lived in Antwerp when Rubens produced these, and seems to have been in contact with him, and certainly knew his experimental and dynamic landscapes. Lievens was more directly inspired by Rubens’s Venus and Adonis of c. 1635-1640 (New York, Metropolitan Museum), but following his usual method in emulating the works of others, has altered, even inverted the positions of the protagonists while retaining quite deliberately and recognizably the compositional innovation of the opposing figures, one seen from in front, the other behind. Rubens painted Adonis, rather than Venus, with his back to the viewer. Lievens placed the hunting dogs in the same position and included Rubens’s device of a tiny, poorly matched cupid trying in vain to hold the massive hunter back from his dark fate. Compared to Rubens’s painting, Lievens’s smaller figure scale and his attempt to integrate them expressively into the more somber and static mood of the night landscape are typical of his own style and interpretation, in which stability, grandeur, mood and expression take on great importance and which in these respects still harks back to Breugel’s landscape drawings, a tradition continued by Jan II Bruegel and Lievens’s friend David Teniers II.
One wonders what relationship this painting has to a certain painting of Venus and Adonis by Lievens, a canvas of 100 cm tall x 83 cm wide, catalogued by Schneider as Nr. 94. It was last with Willem V in The Hague before being plundered in 1785 and not returned in 1815. While Schneider lists only one painting by this subject, there must have been more than one. It is hard to believe that this one canvas would have supposedly passed from Jan Baptista Deyma in Amsterdam in 1655, perhaps through Rembrandt’s hands, back to Lievens by the time of his death 1674 when a Venus and Adonis is catalogued in his probate inventory (“conterfeytsel van Venus en Adonis”), valued at only 8 fl. And would this then would have to have been the same one valued at 100 fl in the inventory of Catharina Hinlopen (widow of Jan Six) four years later (although such a swing was not out of line with the economic conditions of those times). Between 1678 and 1785, Schneider notes its provenance as follows:
Sale, Amsterdam, March 6, 1708, Nr. 37
Sale Quirijn van Biesum, Rotterdam, October 18, 1719, Nr. 156 (fl. 28), although in Hoet’s Naamlijst it is given to Jan Andrea
Evaluated at fl. 18 by Jacques de Roore in the inventory of Catharina Grijpestar in Den Haag, 1732
It seems likely that Schneider’s entry refers to at least two paintings by Lievens of Venus and Adonis, one of which was most likely yours, and which could well have been with Rembrandt.
As a note, I don’t think this shows Diana, since this would not explain the presence of Cupid and a male lover and hunter, nor the resemblance to the Rubens composition and the one by Titian that inspired Rubens. Lievens treated the theme of Diana at the Hunt, elsewhere (Museum, Poznan) casting Louise Henrietta in the role of the Goddess in a portrait historié of 1654. In his Supplement, Rudi Ekkart surmised that this entry (Schneider 94) might have been the same painting as Lievens’s Venus and Mars in Poznan because of the similar dimensions and canvas support, although I disagree, since the two subjects would be hard to confuse with each other.