Leyster, Judith (1609–1660)

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Leyster, Judith (1609–1660)

Dutch painter, mainly of genre scenes, who—due to the misattribution of her works for almost three centuries—reaped critical acclaim while remaining unknown. Name variations: JL. Pronunciation: Ly-ster. Born Judith Leyster in 1609 in Haarlem, Netherlands; died in Heemstede, Netherlands, in 1660; daughter of Jan Willemssen (a Haarlem brewery owner) and Trijn Jaspers; married Jan Miense Molenaer (a painter), in 1636; children: Joannes, Jacobus, Helena, Eva, Constantijn.

Painted first authenticated work, The Jester (1625); joined the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke (1633); had three male pupils (1635); painted last known work, Portrait of a Man (1652).


Laughing Man with Wine Glass; The Jolly Toper (1629); The Jolly Companions or Carousing Couple (misattributed to Frans Hals), Musée du Louvre, Paris (1630); The Proposition (1631); Boy and Girl with Cat and Eel or Two Children and a Cat (misattributed to Hals, National Gallery, London); Still Life; Self-Portrait (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and another Self-Portrait is in the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem); Portrait of a Man (1652). Signed work: JL attached to a star.

The reappraisal of women's roles in art history has often uncovered a female influence in what was previously thought to be an indisputably male domain. The relatively recent inclusion of Judith Leyster in the canon of Dutch art marks a belated acknowledgement of the skills of a painter who, though highly respected in her own lifetime, suffered from misattribution to the extent that she became only a footnote in writings on the works of her husband or tutor. While the biographical details of her life remain scant, enough is known to appreciate the significance of her involvement as an artist in Holland's "Golden Age."

At the time of Leyster's birth in Haarlem in 1609, Holland was the major maritime nation of Europe. A growing middle class, made rich by the fruits of trade, eagerly adorned its pristine homes with material displays of wealth and taste. In this Protestant nation, the bourgeoisie, not the church, became the prime patrons of one of the most popular art markets ever seen, keeping prices affordable and encouraging artists to specialize to ensure a place within it.

Judith was the eighth of the nine children of Jan Willemssen and Trijn Jaspers. Their name "Leyster" was adopted, in a practice common to the time, from the family business, a brewery owned by her father, "De Leyster." It was this surname, translated as "leading" or "pole" or "lode" star, which formed the basis for the characteristic monogram on many of her paintings: a combined "J" and "L," with a star shooting out to the right.

By all accounts, she was born into a materially and financially comfortable home: brewing was a lucrative and respected occupation. But for reasons unknown, the family suffered a major crisis with the bankruptcy of the business in 1625, leaving Willemssen with four dependent children. Art historians speculate that this reversal of fortune provided the catalyst for Leyster's career as a painter: when the family moved from Haarlem to a small town close to Utrecht, an opportunity was provided for her to study there. Many of her later works show the influence of the famous Utrecht Caravaggisti with their distinctive use of chiaroscuro.

By 1629, Leyster was back in Haarlem, her works of this period attesting to the fact that by now she was studying in the shop of Frans Hals. Like her tutor's, many of Leyster's works are, says the historian Simon Schama, "celebrations of unpretentious joys," and at first glance The Jolly Toper, one of her earliest known monogrammed paintings, seems just that. With his jaunty beret, extravagant costume and toothy grin, the toper, lustily raising a tankard of beer, appears to be inviting us to join in his merriment. But a closer examination reveals the pipes, tobacco and other smoking paraphernalia on the table before him, adding a different perspective to the reading, an indication that this is a morality painting. Smoking had become almost an obsession in Holland both for those who craved it and those who denounced it as inducing a state of stupefaction known as "dry-drunkenness." (There is some evidence that the unwitting merchants were stoking up their pipes with cannabis.) Taken together with beer, the national drink, the tobacco in the painting prophesied an inevitable moral decay.

Many of Leyster's paintings include similar underlying messages, though her works encompass an unusually broad range of subjects—portraits, genre scenes, flower illustrations—unlike the specialization of other Dutch women artists of the time (such as Clara Peeters , one of the vanguard of still-life painters, and Maria van Oosterwyck who painted elaborate floral displays).

Training in an artist's studio necessitated the copying of and collaboration in the works of the master. Through this process, Leyster developed a style which, though similar enough to have been confused with Hals', perhaps made even more extreme use, notes Schama, of "the Caravaggist style of large and looming figures brought close to the picture edge in dramatic lighting and heroic posture" to represent everyday situations.

The Proposition, painted in 1631, demonstrates Leyster's mastery of the use of light. It relies upon a single flame to illuminate this scene of a sewing woman approached from the side by a man, hand outheld, offering coins. In this significantly unusual treatment of an oft-used

theme of the time, Leyster painted a woman who meets the suggestion of such trade with embarrassment or shame, a far cry from the lusty maidens of her contemporaries' works depicted as willing purveyors of sexual exchange. This prototypical representation, argue feminist art historians, testifies to the sympathetic approach of the woman artist to her subject and was a direct influence on the more famous Vermeer and Metsu in their "interrupted moment" paintings.

Germaine Greer">

The most remarkable case of a disappearing oeuvre (until the next one comes along) is probably that of Judith Leyster.

Germaine Greer

In 1633, Leyster became the first woman to join the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke, allowing her to establish her own workshop and to take on students, which she did the following year. One of these, a Willem Woutersz, quickly became the subject of a dispute between Leyster and her former tutor, when, after only a few days in Leyster's shop, Woutersz decided to continue his studies with Hals. As a new member of the Guild with a keen sense of its rules (and apparently few qualms about challenging Hals), Leyster requested from Woutersz' mother a quarter of his tuition fees. When refused payment, she took this infraction to the dean of the Guild for judgment. His ruling forced a smaller payment from the mother, a fine for Hals, and the stipulation that Woutersz could no longer study in his shop. The fate of the young artist is not known.

This assertiveness in pleading her case was put to good use following her marriage to Jan Miense Molenaer in 1636. A painter mainly of low-life genre scenes with a penchant for fieldwork in taverns, Molenaer's life can be documented as a series of suits and countersuits within the highly established Dutch small court system. Even their marriage became a judicial subject when Molenaer reneged on his promise to pay family debts from Leyster's dowry. Soon after, the couple moved to Amsterdam, probably to evade the wrath of their creditors. And while Molenaer continued throughout their marriage to paint things such as his pastiches of the Five Senses, often using the pictures in lieu of money and even as part payment on a house, his wife's output drastically declined. In 1637, Leyster gave birth to her first child, who died only a few years later. Of their five children, only one, Helena, survived to marry and bear children of her own.

The difficulties of childbirth, the constant battles with her children's illnesses, and the unrelenting legal disputes created by her husband evidently occupied most of the artist's time, yet in 1643 Leyster undertook a series of botanical illustrations for a catalogue produced by a tulip bulb merchant. In the previous decade, the incredible clamor for ownership of rare and exotic bulbs had given its name to a phenomena—"tulipomania." Bulb prices had soared as the rich burghers of Holland invested their life savings, their houses, or their belongings in these flowers. Then, inevitably, the market had crashed, leaving thousands of investors in financial ruin. Despite this, demand remained reasonably high, and the catalogues enabled purchasers to envisage the future glory of the bulb in addition to providing flower painters with selections for their representations of seasonally unlikely bouquets. For Leyster, this meant small-scale work which could more easily be combined with the role of mother and housewife, while also providing a source of family income. As the only extant examples of work of this type painted by her, the illustrations' delicate lines—in contrast to the bold, fast brushwork of many of her genre paintings—provide further proof of her skills.

Although the tulip illustrations are the latest signed works attributed to Leyster, a further painting, the Portrait of a Man, dating from 1652, is now known to be by her hand and stands as her final work: a simple, anachronistic portrait, it is believed to represent another Haarlem artist.

Leyster died in 1660, in Heemstede, where the family had lived for twelve years, not long after having completed her last will and testament in conjunction with her husband, both parties suffering from ill-health. Of their five children, only two—Helena and Constantijn—survived her, the latter to live only until eighteen. Despite his ailments, Molenaer lived on for eight more years.

The misattribution of Judith Leyster's work began during her lifetime with an engraving made after one of her paintings inscribed "Frans Hals pinxit." The piece, Two Children and a Cat, continued to be thought of as his for the next 300 years. During the 18th century, many more of her paintings were sold as work by Hals, Jan Molenaer, or other artists such as Gerard van Honthorst or Dirck Hals. Not until the end of the 19th century did the true identity of the painter come to light, in the appropriate setting of a courtroom. In 1892, the Carousing Couple (also known as The Jolly Companions), a Leyster painting now held at the Louvre, became the subject of a legal dispute when a purchaser sued the dealer for misrepresentation, having been assured the work was by Hals. The dealer, who had sold the painting for £4,500, claimed that it was not only a Hals but "one of the finest he ever painted," and Sir John Millars agreed with the dealer about the authenticity and value of the painting. When Leyster's evident and idiosyncratic monogram helped prove that Hals was not the painter, the plaintiffs agreed to keep the painting for £3,500 plus £500 costs. Writes Germaine Greer: "The gentlemen of the press made merry at the experts' expense." Delighted by the irony, they pointed out that all the litigation had succeeded in doing was to destroy the value of the painting. "At no time," notes Greer, "did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equalling Hals at his best, had been discovered." In the following year, the famous art historian, Hofstede de Groot, undertook a study of Leyster's work, attributing seven paintings to her.

By the early 20th century, interest in Leyster had grown. The first major study of her works was published in 1926, following which her paintings became increasingly included in writings on the period, though not always to her advantage. "Women painters, as everyone knows, mostly imitate the work of some man" and "can occasionally contribute something pleasing of their own in their pastiches," writes R.H. Wilenski as his 1937 introduction to a passage on Leyster. For some art historians, her work merited far less interest than her imagined private life, in which Leyster, as the supposed mistress of Rembrandt, purportedly painted no less than 22 of his paintings. Though constantly repeated, these rumors are unfounded, history providing no evidence that they even knew each other, let alone shared the same easel. By the 1970s, the resurgence of interest in the work of Frans Hals had led to a rewriting of Judith Leyster's true status as a painter of importance, and her name was finally reclaimed.

The Self-Portrait of Leyster now hanging in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., presents an image of a lively woman at work. Turning away from her canvas, with a relaxed elbow resting on the back of a chair, the only known female artist in 1633 Haarlem represents herself as confident, assertive and undeterred by her difference.


Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1979.

Hofrichter, Frima Fox. Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland's Golden Age. Doornspijk: Davaco, 1989.

Petersen, Karen, and J.J. Wilson. Women Artists. NY: Harper Colophon Books, 1985.

Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches. London: Fontana Press, 1987.

Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History. NY: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Wilenski, R.H. An Introduction to Dutch Art. London: Faber, 1937.

suggested reading:

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Painters 1550–1950. Exhibition catalogue for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976.

Diane Moody , freelance writer in London, with a B.A. in Art History, Princeton, New Jersey