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Bookkeeper at His Desk

Jan Lievens (Leiden 1607 – 1674 Amsterdam)
ca. 1627
oil on panel
89.7 x 72.7 cm
signed information

signed in dark paint, lower left corner: “L”

inventory number

Surh, Dominique. “Bookkeeper at His Desk” (2017). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed July 13, 2024).

Seated at his desk amidst a stack of books and notarized documents, an old man focuses on a page propped up by a book as intense light falling from the upper left casts a dramatic play of light and shadow over the scene. Light provides the expressive means by which Jan Lievens has created a series of powerful opposites, for example the brightness of the white pages of the book in the background versus the darkness of foreground stack of books, or the radiant lemon-yellow of the sunlit portion of the man’s cloak as opposed to the deep grays of its shaded right shoulder and arm. Such chiaroscuro effects also play out on the man’s face, where pinkish folds around the man’s left eye and cheek give way to deep shadows on its opposite side. Light also accentuates the wrinkles in his forehead and picks out the long strands of hair in his beard and mustache.

One could imagine that Constantijn Huygens had a painting such as this in mind when, after visiting the artist’s studio in or around 1628, he praised Jan Lievens for his audacious themes and forms and for his extraordinary ability to depict the human face. Indeed, the present work typifies Lievens’s bold handling of paint while exemplifying his ability to capture the physical and emotional states of his subjects. The sitter’s remarkable physiognomy is achieved through a wide variety of brushstrokes that define his network of wrinkles and sagging folds and frame his face with a soft mane of tousled hair. The old man’s downcast eyes are bloodshot and betray a lapsing focus, implying that he has spent many hours doing mental work. A sense of elapsed time is further suggested by the position of the old man’s black cap, which is tipped to the back of his head as though a stretch and a sigh have just transpired, signaling the end of a full day’s work.

Huygens also remarked that the artist’s brimming self-assurance led him to work in a scale larger than life. Indeed, the present work relates to a number of other half-length single figures executed in the artist’s ambitious scale. Many of these portray elder wise men in the guise of apostles or evangelists surrounded by tattered manuscripts and books, and show them reading, contemplating, or in the act of writing. The type of books and documents on the desk and leaning against the wall, which show numbers and canceled notations, suggests that the man in this painting is a bookkeeper or an accountant. The prominent book in the foreground containing the merchant’s mark “LI” with the numeral 4, identifies the book as a ledger.

This painting relates thematically and compositionally to Lievens’s The Pen Cutter, now on loan at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum from the Sal. Oppenheim Collection (). This work similarly features a single figure seated at a desk surrounded by books and documents, but shows the man in the act of sharpening a quill, with an hourglass and moneybags on his desk. This painting has generally been dated to ca. 1627 on the basis of its close thematic connection to Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Goldweigher, dated 1627 ().  It seems probable that Bookkeeper at His Desk was painted at approximately the same time, ca. 1627.

Lievens employed an expressive technique of incising into the wet paint with the back of the brush to emphasize the wiry texture of the old man’s hair. By using highlights and lowlights that create a contrasting network of hair, Lievens evoked a sense of depth and movement. This technique, which Rembrandt and Lievens both used in the mid- to late 1620s and which perhaps derived from their early efforts in etching, is indicative of their close collaboration and the shared continuum of their ideas. Lievens’s treatment of the sitter’s beard in the present work is also consistent with his work in etching and chalk, as in his red chalk drawing in Darmstadt, A Bearded Old Man with a Book (). The similarity of the sitter’s position with regard to the picture plane, emphasizing the oblique angle of the man’s head and the diagonal lines in the composition, suggests the sketch may have served as an early study for the figure in this painting.

X-radiographs reveal an earlier composition beneath this image. Oriented upside down, it depicts a three-quarter-length portrait of a man in a hat with a lace ruff (). Dendrochronological data indicates the earliest use of the panel from 1603 onward, leaving a period of around two decades during which the portrait could be dated. The style of this underlying portrait is unlike anything Lievens is known to have painted in his early years and must have been painted by another hand. Lievens is known to have acquired inexpensive panels during his Leiden years, and this previously used panel may have been one of those.

- Dominique Surh, 2017
For further discussion about this artwork, see The Signing of Paintings by Rembrandt and His Contemporaries.
  • Basil Beridge, Algarkirk Hall, Lincolnshire (his sale, London, 8 April 1911, no. 23 [£514 to Partridge, Lewis, & Simmons, London], as by Rembrandt).
  • [Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris, by 1921, as by Rembrandt].
  • Duc de G. (his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 22 May 1925, no. 11 [80,000 francs to Pinchon], as by Rembrandt).
  • Armand Esders (his sale, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 28 May 1941, no. 16, as by Rembrandt [A. de Rouvre, Paris, 1947]).
  • Private collection, France [Salomon Lilian, B. V., Amsterdam, 2005].
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2006.
  • Kyoto, Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, “Communication: Visualizing the Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer,” 25 June–16 October 2011; Miyagi, Miyagi Museum of Art, 27 October–12 December 2011; Tokyo, Bunkamura Museum of Art, 23 December 2011–14 March 2012, no. 23 [lent by the present owner].
  • Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on loan with the permanent collection, April 2012–July 2014 [lent by the present owner].
  • Beijing, National Museum of China, “Rembrandt and His Time: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection,” 17 June–3 September 2017 [lent by the present owner].
  • Shanghai, Long Museum, West Bund, “Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals in the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection,” 23 September 2017–25 February 2018 [lent by the present owner].
  • Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, “The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection,” 28 March 2018–22 July 2018 [lent by the present owner].
  • St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum, “The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection,” 5 September 2018–13 January 2019 [lent by the present owner].
  • Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, “Rembrandt, Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age. Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection and the Musée du Louvre,” 14 February–18 May 2019 [lent by the present owner].
  • Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt: Wiedergefundene Gemälde (1910–1920) in 120 Abbildungen. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1921, 26, no. 109 (as attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn).
  • Bredius, Abraham. “Wiedergefundene ‘Rembrandts.’” Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst 56, no.  32 (1921): 151, no. 109 (as most likely by Jan Lievens).
  • Van Dyke, John C. Rembrandt and His School: A Critical Study of the Master and His Pupils with a New Assignment of Their Pictures. New York, 1923, 123–24, no. 26.100.
  • Schneider, Hans. Jan Lievens: Sein Leben und seine Werke. Haarlem, 1932, 110, no. 74. Reprinted with supplement by Rudolf Otto Ekkart, Amsterdam, 1973, 325, no. 74.
  • Von Schneider, Arthur. Caravaggio und die Niederländer. Marburg and Lahn, 1933, 73.
  • Bauch, Kurt. Die Kunst des jungen Rembrandt. Heidelberg, 1933, 220.
  • Bauch, Kurt. “Rembrandt und Lievens.” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 11 (1939): 258–59.
  • Bauch, Kurt. Der frühe Rembrandt und sein Zeit: Studien zur geschichtlichen Bedeutung seines Frühstils. Berlin, 1960, 265–66 n. 184.
  • Bauch, Kurt. “Zum Werk des Jan Lievens (II).” Pantheon 25 (1967): 262.
  • Sumowski, Werner. Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler. 6 vols. Landau and Pfalz, 1983–94, 3:1794, 1874, under no. 1235.
  • Surh, Dominique.  “A Philosopher.” In Salomon Lilian: Old Masters 2005. Sales cat. Amsterdam, Salomon Lilian B.V. Amsterdam, 2005, 28–31, no. 8.
  • Surh, Dominique. “A Bookkeeper at His Desk.” In Communication: Visualizing the Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., 128–29, no. 23. Exh. cat. Kyoto, Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art; Miyagi, Miyagi Museum of Art; Tokyo, Bunkamura Museum of Art. Tokyo, 2011.
  • Schnackenburg, Bernhard. Jan Lievens: Friend and Rival of the Young Rembrandt. Petersberg, 2016, 295, no. 111.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara “Bookkeeper at His Desk.” In Rembrandt and His Time: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection. Edited by Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 36; 173, no. 8. Translated by Li Ying. Exh. cat. Beijing, National Museum of China. Beijing, 2017.
  • Long Museum, West Bund. Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals in the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection. Exh. cat. Shanghai, Long Museum, West Bund. Shanghai, 2017, 56–57.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “Bookkeeper at His Desk.” In The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection. Edited by Polina Lyubimova, 108–9; 236, no. 21. Translated by Daria Babich and Daria Kuzina. Exh. cat. Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts; St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum. Moscow, 2018.
  • Ducos, Blaise, and Lara Yeager-Crasselt, eds. Rembrandt, Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age. Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection and the Musée du Louvre. Exh. cat. Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi. London, 2019, 70–1, no. 12. [Exhibition catalogue also published in French and Arabic.]
  • Sevcik, Anja K., ed. Inside Rembrandt 1606-1669. Exh. cat. Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud. Petersberg, 2019, 147–48, fig. 39.2.

The support is a rectangular composite panel composed of three vertically grained Baltic oak planks: a wide central plank flanked by two narrower planks. Planks 2 and 3 are from the same tree, and the earliest creation date of the painting is 1603. There are no bevels, and the panel has been cradled. There is one paper label and two white chalk inscriptions but no wax seals, import stamps, stencils or panel maker’s marks.

The X-radiograph reveals an earlier three-quarter-length portrait of a male wearing a white ruff oriented upside down below the present composition. In raking light, the figure-eight-shaped curves of the underlying ruff are visible in the book in the foreground of the present composition, and the slightly raised thumb and curved fingers of the figure’s proper right hand can be seen to the right of the visible man’s head.

A warm, light-colored ground is thinly and evenly applied. A dark underlayer shows through the upper two-thirds of the composition, and a light tan underlayer shows through the lower third of the composition. The underlayers presumably relate to the earlier portrait located below the present composition. The paint has been applied with visible brushwork and texture through the figure’s forehead, beard, and yellow cloak, and thinly with loose transparent brushwork along the upper right corner. Portions of the figure’s beard hairs have been inscribed in wet paint with the back of a brush.

No underdrawing is evident with infrared images captured at 780–1000 nanometers. The images suggest the man’s proper left shoulder and sleeve may have been shifted to the left during the paint stage.

The painting is signed with a single letter in dark paint along the lower left corner.

The painting was cleaned and restored in Paris in 2003, at which time the monogram was discovered. It has not undergone conservation treatment since its acquisition in 2006 and remains in a good state of preservation.

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