Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Abraham and Isaac by Jan Lievens (c. 1637)

Yesterday we looked at how Caravaggio depicted the dramatic moment in Genesis 22 when Abraham is about to murder Isaac at God’s command, and how he is stopped in his bloody work by an angel.  Today, we travel north to see how artist Jan Lievens envisioned the immediate aftermath of the story.

As Genesis 22 reads: And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

Jan Lievens (1607 – 1674) was a celebrated North-Netherlandish painter and etcher. He is often compared to his friend and colleague Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), and both artists were the pupils of Dutch painter and teacher Pieter Lastman.  (Lievens and Rembrandt would share a studio for some five years, and some scholars had trouble attributing work between the two artists.)  Lievens was a child prodigy, and he left his humble origins when he was 10 years old (his father was a tapestry worker) to train with Joris Verschoten.  Lievens was only 12 years old when he began his career as an artist (!) and, like Mozart, was celebrated for both his talent and his preciosity.

One of Lievens’ paintings found its way into the hands of James I, who invited Lievens (who was then 31) to become a painter to the English court.  After that, Lievens knocked about the European art world, working in Antwrep, acting as court painter in The Hague and Berlin, and later returning to Amsterdam in 1655.  He met with great success throughout his life, but in 1672, after the Rapjaar (the “disaster year” that found the country ravaged by war and internal strife), Lievens was nearly destitute.  Despite once having a considerable fortune, his family found that there was no inheritance to be had.

This picture, painted around the time Lievens was 30 years old, shows Abraham holding Isaac immediately after sacrificing the ram.  Lievens was living in Antwerp when he painted this canvas, and it is possible that the years he spent in London with Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641) influenced his coloration and brushwork. 

Where Caravaggio perhaps saw nothing but zealotry and madness in the situation of Abraham and Isaac, Lievens enigmatically captures something of the (necessarily) conflicting emotions of Issac.

The bloody carcass of the ram lies in the foreground, along with the knife almost used to end Isaac’s life.  The sacrificial pyre is lit and, in contrast to Caravaggio, there are no houses or sign of people in the distance, only a sky heavy with dramatic heavenly portent.  Where Caravaggio provides Abraham with the bland and placid visage of a zealot “just following orders,” Lievens portrays a web of complex emotions on the old prophet’s face.  As Abraham looks up – one cannot help but ask is Abraham thinking, thank you Lord for saving my son or is he thinking are you sure you don’t want me to do this?  Look at the arm that embraces Isaac – one cannot be terribly sure if that is the clutch of affection, or the vice-like grip of someone reluctant to let his victim go.  The right hand, too, wraps around the boy’s shoulder – in that hold, Isaac is not going anywhere.  (And it’s all fairly moot, as is implied by Abraham’s empty scabbard and spent knife – in this affair, at least, Abraham has been rendered impotent.)

Much more interesting, to my mind, if the face of Isaac.  Though looking heavenward in roughly the same direction as Abraham, is his the face of a child looking up into God’s majesty, or of a terrified boy in the clutch of a madman?  The ambiguity of Isaac’s face is hiding in plain sight:  where one might easily see a boy staring up at God, another might just as easily see a child looking for whatever it is his father is gazing at and missing it.

And that is leads to another question that is certainly implied here but never addressed in the Old Testament: how could Isaac ever again trust Abraham?


lyle said...

"....acting as court painter in The Hague and Berlin", and earlier he worked in the court in London. How did this work? Did 'court painters' work for the state, on commissioned paintings only? And why did they move on? Was it common to move around so much?

James Abbott said...

Good question -- one with a fairly complex answer. It was usual for centuries for artists to have patrons, who could be anything from kings on down the line of nobility. They supported the artist, while the artist worked on pieces commissioned by the patron. It would be a mistake to think of this a 'working for the state,' as the power structure was a little more feudal than that. And it was not uncommon to jump about -- artists, like anyone else, were looking for the best position, the most interesting work, and the best way towards advancement.

lyle said...

no Christies or Sootheby's, no internet, the only way that anybody actually heard of an artist was probably at the patron's home. Must have caused a few ruffled feathers when one lord 'stole' another's artist. Or were they traded? (I'll give you Lievens for the promise of not attacking me and ....)

Anonymous said...

The more things change the more they stay the same...