Judith Leyster was a highly regarded member of the Dutch Golden Age who is believed by many to have been amongst the most talented artists to have contributed to this important period in the history of the Netherlands.
Leyster also served an important role way beyond just her own career, but also in displaying the qualities that could be delivered by female artists, who for many centuries had been discouraged from entering the creative arts industry. Thankfully, her determination and ability shone through in the end, and she would become one of a number of successful female painters within that era. Art history would do its best to hide her achievements, mis-attributing all of her work to related artists for a number of years but eventually this error was corrected and today we can learn much about her life. She worked in a lively manner, expressing herself in a style which proved popular with the public. It also suited the subject matter that she displayed of lively social scenes, similar to how the Bruegels had worked in the previous century. Tavens and weddings would be popular choices, where local people would get together and drink, eat and listen to live music.
There are some gaps in our knowledge of this artist, just as with most of the Dutch Golden Age artists, but we do know that she was connected to famous master, Frans Hals. There are clear similiarities between their work which might suggest that she was a pupil of his but this has never been proven. She is known to have later fallen out with him over a pupil who switched from her workshop to his, and this soured their friendship for good. She was clearly a strong character who would happily stand up for her own interests, aware that she was working within a male-dominated industry where she would need to fight to preserve her own status. She was born in Haarlem and this large town would host a number of important artists, with further cities relatively close by that could also offer more opportunities to these established artists. Some would relocate entirely, such as to Amsterdam, whilst others would move around on short trips before returning home.
As has happened with a number of famous female artists, Leyster would actually marry a fellow artist, namely Jan Miense Molenaer. In some examples, such as with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the husband would be the older, established artist who offered a lift up against the societal barriers (see also Sara van Baalbergen and Barent van Eysen). The scenario with Judith Leyster and Jan Miense Molenaer would be much more balanced, though, and they came through similar career paths before eventually living and working together. They would have five children together in total, and at that time most families would be large because of the likelihood that many would not make it into adulthood. Thankfully Leyster was still able to continue working (though less prolifically) and over time her achievements have been correctly attributed to her own hand. For many years her oeuvre was assumed to have been by her husband or their tutor, Frans Hals, but today there is a strong body of work which is entirely accepted as her's and her's alone. She has therefore established herself as the most important female painter within the Dutch Golden Age.
She was born in Haarlem in 1609 to typically large family. Her parents were involved in brewing and clothmaking. Sadly, her father would fall into bankruptcy and the family moved to the province of Utrecht in search of improved fortunes. Utrecht itself had a strong selection of artists at that time, most of whom broadly followed the techniques of Caravaggio, and this may have encouraged her to pursue art as a profession. Information on her early years as an artist are relatively scarce, and many theories have been put forward over the years, with little evidence to conclusively prove any of them. She is known to have first produced sellable artworks in around 1629, and then joined the respected Haarlem Guild of St. Luke around four years later. The guild would take on many women during the 17th century, but their skills tended to lie in other artistic disciplines besides painting, such as pottery and embroidery.
Marriage to Jan Miense Molenaer
The artist chose to marry fellow painter Jan Miense Molenaer in 1636. They were of similar age and also had worked in much the same manner, but Molenaar was slightly more advanced in his career at the time. Leyster had acquired several apprentices already, but her husband boasted a strong list of patrons at that point. Their relationship would benefit them both, and soon they decided to relocate to Amsterdam in order to take advantage of the success that Jan was already having in the capital. They spent around eleven years there before returning to Haarlem, where they were both born and brought up. Today we can enjoy their respective careers after confusion over attributions were cleared up over the past two centuries. Both had some of their work labelled as that of Frans Hals, and the two certainly took inspiration from his work, whilst also instilling their own unique ideas alongside. In recent years Leyster has started to become known as the more talented of the two artists, with her career benefiting from a growing interest in female artists from the past.
Style and Techniques
The artist's work featured several signature elements which allowed her to differ slightly from her husband's work, plus also that of Frans Hals. For example, she often used fairly plain backgrounds, allowing the full focus to be given to her figurative work in front. She rarely went beyond just a few figures, allowing greater detail to be displayed within them and also making each composition a little more intimate. She followed the popular style of genre painting which captured the daily lives of local Dutch people during at that time, but provided them with an anonymity that left us wanting to find out more. Young women and children feature within some of her best work, but also there are many scenes of men socialising together with food and drink. Whilst mis-attributed to the great master, Frans Hals, some were even described as being amongst his best work, underlining the technical brilliance of this artist. Her style was fairly free and expressive, and this entirely suited these scenes of social merriment, laughter and fun which proved popular with the Dutch public.
Judith Leyster's Most Famous Paintings
There are currently around thirty paintings which have been attributed to the artist, from all those that have survived to the present day. There is a strong consistency across them all with the style and attributes mentioned previously. Her self portrait remains the best known work from her career, possibly because it also allows us to see the artist herself, and better understand the woman behind these enjoyable and expressive artworks. The Proposition provides an excellent example of Dutch genre painting and this piece also receives considerble exposure. Jolly Toper, The Last Drop, A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel and Serenade then offer more examples of her love for social occasions and interesting characters going about their daily lives. The Rijksmuseum continues to highlight her achievements with a number of items from their permanent collection and many of what are considered to be her most famous paintings is actually dictated by which galleries and museums they now reside within. In time, it is quite possible that other paintings, perhaps even drawings, will be attributed to her, either from newly recovered works or from a re-evaluation of existing artworks.
Female Artists in the Dutch Golden Age
In recent years there has been a much greater focus afforded to female artists from the past. In previous centuries they have struggled for acceptance within a male-dominated industry. Some have managed to overcome these barriers, though many would have been deterred from entering this profession because of how society preceived the role of women at the time. Leyster was one of those who succeeded, but even she would would suffer for years after her death, with all of her paintings being attributed to a number of male artists. Thankfully, that error has since been corrected, and there are also a number of other important female artists from the Dutch Golden Age who also deserve recognition. The others to look out for include Merian, van de Passe, Rachel Ruysch, Maria Schalcken, Anna Maria van Schurman, Clara Peeters and Alida Withoos. Many were airbrushed from art history in the 18th century before then making a return some years later. Mis-attributions are not uncommon within the art world, but to see so many female artists suffer in this way does lead one to suspect there to be a concerted effort to penalise them based on their gender. All of the names featured here were included within a recent exhibition titled Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age, which was held in Washington DC, USA.
Legal Battle with Frans Hals
Leyster launched a claim against Frans Hals after one of her pupils left her studio and immediately joined his. She was furious that one of her most talented apprentices would be lured away in this manner and successfully claimed compensation which was later paid out by the pupil's mother. Hals himself paid a nominal fine for the incident, but the young painter refused to return to her service. Perhaps she developed a fierce character in order to survive within the industry, though it was her artistic talent which of course was most important. She and Hals would seldom speak after this incident, but prior to that they may well have been close, with some arguing that actually it was he who taught her many of the skills that her oeuvre displays. Alternatively, they may have just been friends who discussed art with each other and shared a relatively similar artistic style. With all of the centuries that have passed since, it would now be very hard to ascertain what the real truth is and so we are left to simply debate over what is most likely to have been the case.
Judith Leyster's legacy would be hidden for a number of years, with all of her work being attributed to other artists. This would be corrected over the 18th and 19th century, allowing her oeuvre to be judged fairly for the first time. Some of this confusion may not have been intentionally done, because of how she often would not sign her paintings, but in other cases it might have been deemed more profitable for collectors to claim a piece to have been by Frans Hals, for example, rather than from Leyster. She worked in a more expressive manner than other women artists of that era, and so showed again what was possible for those given an opportunity to display their talents. She also provided another example of the wealth of artistic creativity to be found in Haarlem at that time, even though much of her work was completed after the family had relocated to Amsterdam. Today, many of her most famous paintings can be found within the permanent collections of some of the most significant art galleries and museums in the world, including the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; the Mauritshuis, the Frans Hals Museum, the Louvre, the National Gallery in London and also the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Related Artists from Haarlem
Haarlem was a hotbed of artistic talent, with Judith Leyster and her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, being just two examples to appear from the Dutch Golden Age. Genre painting proved popular with the public and was common within Haarlem at that time. Frans Hals was originally from Antwerp, in modern day Belgium, but he would find most of his success within Haarlem as well. Indeed, the three artists would share many similarities in terms of style and content. Other famous Haarlem painters include the likes of Sara van Baalbergen, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jacob Salomonsz van Ruysdael, Maria de Grebber and Dirck Hals. There were then many hundreds more who did not reach quite the same levels of fame but still made important contributions towards the overall art scene within this city. Some would serve as apprentices and assistants within small studios, sometimes even collaborating with masters in some of their famous artworks. Whilst many would head to Amsterdam in search of more wealthy patrons, they would all learn their trade within Haarlem and rarely lost the stylistic influences which were baked in from a young age.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.