According to Houbraken, Lievens was the son of Lieven Hendriksze, a tapestry worker (borduurwerker), and was trained by Joris Verschoten. He was sent to Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam at about the age of 10 for two full years. After that he began his career as an independent artist at about the age of 1in Leiden. He became somewhat of a celebrity because of his talent at such a young age. Specifically, his copy of Democriet & Herakliet by Cornelis van Haarlem, and a portrait of his mother Machtelt Jans van Noortzant, were wondered at. This attracted the attention of the Prince of Orange around 1620, who bought a life-size painting of a young man reading by the light of a turf-fire. He gave this painting in turn to the Ambassadeur of England, who gave it to the English king. This was the reason why, when Lievens was 31, he was invited to the British court. When he returned from England via Calais, he settled in Antwerp, where he married the daughter of the sculptor Michiel Colyns, Suzanna Colyn de Nole on 23 December 1638. In this period he won many commissions for royalty, mayors, and city halls. A Continence of Scipio by his hand was painted for the Leiden city hall. A poem by Joost van den Vondel was written in honor of a painting (a schoorsteenstuk, or over the mantel piece) he made for the mayor's office of the Amsterdam city hall (now the Royal Palace of Amsterdam) in 1661. According to the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, this piece survives and depicts Brinno on a shield with the Cananefates, after a similar painting by Otto van Veen in 1613. Karel van Mander's painting of the Continence of Scipio, depicting his return of a captured young woman to her fiancé, having refused to accept her from his troops as a prize of war. This was a popular subject for the historical allegory in Lievens' time. Lievens interpretation (whereabouts unknown) was described by Houbraken.
Lievens collaborated and shared a studio with Rembrandt van Rijn in 1626. Their collaboration was intimate enough to cause difficulties in the attribution of works from this period. Lievens showed talent for painting in a life-size scale, and his dramatic compositions suggest the influence of the Caravaggisti. In Constantijn Huygens' assessment, Lievens was more inventive, yet less expressive than Rembrandt. The two men split in 1631, when Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and Lievens to England. (Rembrandt still owned paintings by his former friend).
During his time in England Lievens painted a portrait for Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel, and became influenced by the works of Anthony van Dyck. Lievens worked in Antwerp, and cooperated with Adriaen Brouwer. After being a court painter in The Hague and Berlin, he returned to Amsterdam in 1655. After his first wife died he married a sister of Jan de Bray in 1648. After 1672, the Rampjaar Lievens had increasing financial difficulties and his family voided all claims of inheritance on his death due to his debts.