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Johann Liss
German, c. 1595-1631

S.N. 311, oil on canvas

From: "The Pages"

Born in the north of Germany, near Lubeck, Liss's parents are believed to have been painters in the court of the dukes of Holstein. After early training with his parents, he set out for the Netherlands where it is thought he trained with the Mannerist Goltzius, in Amsterdam. Later, in Antwerp, through the works of Rubens, Janssen, and Jordaens, he studied the Caravaggesque influence which is seen in his later Italian years. He visited Paris, journeyed to Venice for several years, and finally to Rome in 1622. This move brought him into contact with the city's leading artists, including Manfredi and Nicolas Regnier. While absorbing the styles of various followers of Caravaggio, his paintings at this time show he declined to be associated with one school. For example, aside from Flemish-Roman realism, he produced mythologic works in the style of Annibale Carracci and his followers. In 1625, he returned to Venice where he remained most of his short life. Here, he was viewed as a successor to Domenico Fetti. His Vision of St. Jerome is thought to be his
only official commission and largest sacred painting for the Church of St. Nicholas of Tolentine in Venice. Generally considered his masterpiece, it has been much copied, and came near the end of his career. He died in Verona in 1631.

St. Jerome, the 4th century monk and Doctor of the Church, is depicted by Liss as a hermit and teacher, sitting naked on a rock looking up expectantly at an angel. Liss combines three major roles in the life of St. Jerome: the penitent in the rugged outdoors of the desert; the scholar who translated The Bible with his books and quill; and the Doctor of the Church with the Cardinal's purple robe and hat (in the right foreground). The lion who came to live with St. Jerome after the saint pulled a thorn out of his foot, is included in the lower left. One angel draws the saint's attention to another angel about to blow the trumpet.

The original story behind this depiction of St. Jerome may have come from a dream Jerome had when he was seriously ill. In the dream he appeared before God's judgment seat and was condemned for not being a Christian. In the 17th century the image of the saint in scholarly pursuits became very popular after Caravaggio painted St. Matthew with an angel. Also it is thought that Liss was familiar with Ribera's two versions of St. Jerome, both of which included an angel with a trumpet.

In style, our St. Jerome shows the remarkably free brushwork in the manner of Rubens and brilliant use of high-keyed color that were characteristic of Liss. The strong influence of Roman chiaroscuro is seen in the modeled figure of the saint, the linear details and the sharply defined profiles. Even though St. Jerome's muscular figure firmly holds its ground, his diagonal thrust and upward glance lead toward heaven, where the forms and colors are more brilliant. By way of contrast, the foreground is dulled with shadows which absorb details of the beautifully modeled lion's head as well as the purple robe and cardinal's hat.

As if oppressed by the city's past grandeur, native Venetian painters in the first part of the 17th century could produce little except pale imitations of great 16th century artists like Veronese, Titian, and Tintoretto. It took foreigners - the Roman Domenico Fetti, Bernardo Strozzi, and finally Johann Liss - to give new vitality and inventiveness to Venetian art. One might say that Liss treated his paintings with a coloristic sensuousness that is wholly Venetian, showing the influence of Titian and Veronese. However, the exuberance of his figures and the rippling light demonstrate an emotional and pictorial unity that is entirely new to Venetian painting. These features were the most distinctive points which were to influence Venetian painting when its glory revived in the 18th century.

Few of the painters active in Germany in the 17th century reached artistic levels comparable to those of artists from Italy, France, or the Netherlands. Of those who did leave Germany to finish their careers abroad, Johann Liss was among the most brilliant.