29 March 2010

An Uppity Dutch Master (Part II)

(Part I at Uppity Dutch Master)

The Forgotten Master

After Judith Leyster married fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer in 1636, she apparently gave up painting. As far as we knew, only a single work dates from after her marriage -- a hyper-Dutch catalogue of tulips pictured in watercolours (1643).

Instead of painting, we are told, she devoted her energies to the financial management of her husband's affairs. In the Dutch Republic, nothing was more common than a craftsman's wife serving as the salesperson for his products. Thus, she abandoned her creative role and professional success in order to take on a traditional woman's role -- albeit a non-domestic one.

And then, too, there was this:

Joannes (baptised 1637)
Jacobus (baptised 1639)
Helena (baptised 1643)
Eva (baptised 1646)
Constantijn (baptised 1651)

So she had quite a lot on her plate besides her art.

Anyway, what was she really giving up?

The eclipse of a 'leading star'

As one critic put it,* Leyster's short career had not been exactly a "stellar success".
Over the seven years of her active career, her output seems to have been low (about fourteen paintings a year), and the highest price for one of her works recorded in a contemporary source is 18 guilders. This means that the most she could have been making was 250 guilders a year, less than the wage of a skilled laborer.
Her husband was clearly the superior breadwinner, "a prolific artist with an individual and apparently highly marketable style, whose work brought much higher prices than those of his wife." She, however, was a clever clogs and switched to the business side of art. As an art dealer and by deftly managing their legal affairs, Leyster did more to raise the family income than she could ever have done as a painter. The Molenaers invested their subsequent profits in real estate, including an expensive country estate midway between Amsterdam and Haarlem.

No surprise, really, that the world forgot about her. After her death in 1660, her paintings became completely unknown. Between 1660 and 1893, no museum held any works attributed to her, her name was not recorded in sales catalogues, and no prints after her paintings were inscribed with her name. The history of painting in the Golden Age seemed complete without her.

What's wrong with this picture?

Quite a lot, actually.

In 1892, an irate English art dealer went to court in connection with a painting he had purchased as a Frans Hals.

What was the problem? The painting, he fumed (now known as 'Carousing Couple; left), was not genuine. For, when cleaned of the grime of age, just above the man's shoe was discovered Judith Leyster's characteristic tiny monogram. Irrefutable evidence that it was by her hand. The lawsuit was settled by the seller reducing the price of the work by 25%.

As a result of the publicity generated by the trial, seven more paintings thought to be by Hals were quickly identified as Leysters, six of them bearing her monogram.**

After centuries of silence, the Dutch art historian, connoisseur, and collector, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (he who had recognized her monogram on the shoe), published the first article on her work in the prestigious Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen. Her rehabilitation was under way.

But it was never going to be easy.

Pop Goes the Weasel

Women, in general, possess no artistic sensibility ... nor genius. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

How true. Having discovered the authentic creator of the 'Carousing Couple', the work immediately lost market value (25%) despite having previously received critical accolades for the fine brush strokes and nuances of character portrayed in the portraits. Now that the painting was a 'Judith Leyster', critics carped that it was weak and lacking in vigour:

Some women artists tried to emulate Frans Hals but the vigorous brush strokes of the master were beyond their capability; one has to only look at the works of a painter like Judith Leyster to detect the weakness of the feminine hand…( James Laver, 'Women Painters', Saturday Book, 1964).

But why, we may ask, did it take so long for this wishy-washy weakness to be observed? The 'Carousing Couple' had been firmly attributed to Frans Hals since 1758. So, many had looked and not seen ... until Leyster's monogram let the genii out of the bottle.

Critical attention today is more respectful but, still, her work is often judged as if it were a hodgepodge of male influences. Her fading from fame may thus be read as largely self-imposed (sotto-voce: and deserved): she could only hope "to achieve some measure of recognition by imitating the styles of her successful contemporaries, Frans Hals, Dirck Hals, and [her future husband] Jan Miense Molenaer."

Even in the catalogue of a recent show dedicated to Leyster, we are barraged with a list of her influences and left to conclude that her work is essentially a stylistic pastiche of her male mentors. So, in a sense, she still does not exist as an independent painter.

This is wrong on several levels. The question is not "Is she as good as Frans Hals?" but rather "How good is she?"

Enter Frima Fox Hofrichter
Hofrichter wrote a pioneering Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland's Golden Age (her doctoral dissertation) in 1989.*** She may be credited more than anyone with plucking the female Dutch Master from obscurity and turning her into today's 'Light in the Galaxy':

My sense that Leyster was forgotten, dismissed, overlooked, absent, and invisible engendered in me both indignation and a sense of mission. So my work began as an adventure. I was exploring unknown territory—trailblazing as a historian and a feminist. That was in the 1970s, when the world was different. It was not enough just to attribute paintings to her, though that was hard enough; I also had to address the question of their meaning. Where did Leyster fit in? What issues did she tackle? ... And how could I know this dead woman except through her cleverness and her wit and by understanding what was left of her—her paintings?

She began by exploring a painting that touched on many of these issues, with the underlying theme of the relationship between men and women—The Proposition (1631, left), which depicts a smiling man offering coins to a woman who sits sewing by candlelight.

Propositions and Whores

This was a popular subject in the 16th and 17th centuries but Leyster's viewpoint contrasts with other artists' treatment of the subject, which often stressed a whorishness in the female figures: the women were dressed provocatively and were willing participants in the exchange; an older woman was often included in the picture as a boisterous procuress. In Leyster's painting, on the other hand, the woman is dressed modestly and ignores the man, continuing intently with her task. Hofrichter sees this as a woman's perspective and possibly a critical response to the way male artists handled the scene. One might go further: I suspect it is a woman's reaction to a man who stubbornly refuses to believe that his attentions are unwelcome. What woman hasn't faced a similar predicament?

Technically, too, this is a striking painting. Leyster filled more than half of the picture with evocative shadows -- something no other painter had done before her. Hofrichter credits Leyster with the innovation of the nocturnal scene with a candle as the visible source of light and most critics would now probably agree that her rendering of artificial lighting was unsurpassed by any genre painter in Haarlem, Hals included. While filling in the background, which was painted last, she leaves a minute space around the silhouettes of the figures which lends a sparkling quality to her work. She uses an unexpected vantage point -- half-length figures viewed from below -- which, together with her strong diagonals, produce a distinctive compositional type.

Leyster's concentration on the psychology of the relationships also sets her apart. Her 'Game of Tric-Trac' (top left) is another common subject that Leyster handles quite differently from other painters: the two men at the game board in this beautifully lit night scene are accompanied by a woman, dressed not in the deep decolletage of her counterparts in similar scenes but covered up to the neck in starched linen, like a good housewife. Nevertheless, the woman grins and offers a pipe to one of the men with an almost masculine casualness. This straightforward woman so comfortable among men seems meant as a stand-in for Leyster herself.

In the 'Carousing Couple' (centre left), too, the smiling woman offering a drink to the youth who is merrily fiddling his time away, may also represent Leyster. The couple looks to be just this side of tipsiness; the one more glass she is about to pour will be one too much. Are you sure you want this drink? Imagine the psychology of a woman artist portraying herself in this role: she is the seducer: she is tempting Beauty but she is also the Painter. In such a scene, she declares for herself a creative role that is actually more active and more controlling than that of any (seduced) male artist could ever be.

There is still more to tell about Judith Leyster but I've run out of time today. I'd particularly like to talk about what happened after she supposedly stopped painting in 1636 -- and to report on a spectacular discovery made quite literally by a lady Luck. So, Part III will follow (albeit a bit delayed by travel).

An Uppity Dutch Master (Part III)

* From E.A. Honig, review of J.A. Welu & P. Biesboer, A Dutch Master and her World, in Woman's Art Journal, No. 2 (Autumn, 1995 - Winter, 1996)44-47.

** For example, some misattributions:
Laughing Man with Wine Glass, was attributed to Gerard Honthorst; all the following were attributed to Frans Hals: The Jolly Companions, sold in 1890, (Leyster’s monogram had been altered to an interlocking FH); The Jolly Toper, monogrammed and dated 1629, sold at the Hotel Drouot in 1890 (acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1897); another Jolly Toper bought in 1874 by the Kaise-Friedrich Museum; Leyster's Self-Portrait, 1633 (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: see previous post); her Portrait of a Woman, dated 1635, now in the Frans Hals Museum. Even during her lifetime, Amsterdam artist Cornelius Danckerts (1603-56) engraved a work by Leysters, 'Two Children with a Cat' (1630), with the inscription F. Hals pinxit -- although it includes her monogram.

One is just a wee bit tempted (along with The Artist's Muse) to wonder if the jaunty
Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen, Seated on a Chair (right) might not be an unrecognized Leyster as well. This spontaneous and informal portrait is unusual within Hals' oeuvre and among Dutch portraiture of the time, but makes a fine pendant to Leyster's self-portrait. As Sharon Hart remarks: One may accuse me of wishful thinking -- of being delusional enough to suggest the possibility that the recent painting that sold at Sotheby’s may be not be a genuine Frans Hals work. However, only four years ago, the same painting was sold at an auction in Vienna to an anonymous buyer for a mere $700,000, as the catalog description read, “Studio of Frans Hals”. It was only later authenticated to have been painted by the renowned painter.

F. F. Hofrichter, Judith Leyster. A woman painter in Holland’s Golden Age (Doornspijk NL 1989).


Upper left: 'Carousing Couple' (formerly attributed to Frans Hals) 1630. Louvre Museum. Photo credit: Texas A&M University.

Centre left: 'A Game of Tric-Trac' (identified and located by F.F. Hofrichter) ca. 1630. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA; (accession number 1983.58).

Lower left: 'The Proposition (named by F.F. Hofrichter) 1631. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

21 March 2010

An Uppity Dutch Master

Yesterday, I went to see a small show of paintings by Judith Leyster (1609-1660), the first woman to be recognized in the Dutch Golden Age as a 'Master Painter'. Nowadays, we'd gender-bend the term and call her, quite rightly, a Mistress of Painting.

Once accepted into the guild of master-painters, she had the right to open a workshop, take on apprentices, and sell her paintings independently.

But first, she had to prove her skills. So, in the time-honoured manner, when she was 24 years old, Leyster presented a major painting to the Guild of St Luke in her home town of Haarlem, Holland. That was the original meaning of a 'master-piece' -- the proof of the pudding, as it were. Judith's proffered masterpiece was a unique self-portrait of the artist herself (left).*

So, yesterday, in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem -- at an exhibition in honour of her 400th birthday (it opened last December and runs till the 9th of May) -- I stood looking at Judith who turned away from her easel to look out at me. Her right arm rested on the back of her chair, her elbow jutting out, and I slowly realized just how extraordinary this self-portrait was.

Elbows do not jut in portraits of women in the Golden Age.

This informal, spontaneous pose was a convention made popular a few years earlier by Frans Hals, the premier painter of Haarlem, in whose studio Judith may have spent some of her apprentice years. Hals, of course, only painted male figures in this forceful pose, which was meant to give a sense of active engagement between the viewer and the pictured world. His women are more demure, with hands (and elbows) well tucked away within the picture space. Judith thus makes a big claim here. Not only is she a Master Painter, but her jutting elbow suggests she is challenging the prerogatives of a man.

This is a painter full of confidence. She knows her own worth, too. That may well be why she signed her paintings with a very distinctive monogram -- JL entwined with a star (right) -- punning on her last name, 'leyster', which means in Dutch 'leading star' or 'lodestar'.

A new star in the Golden Age of Dutch art

How did this happen?

Women artists prior to the 19th century were usually born into artist families and apprenticed in the family workshop. But Judith Leyster was one of nine children of a Flemish immigrant silk weaver who, as far as we know, had no interest in art. Her father's success in his adopted city of Haarlem enabled him to invest in real estate, eventually buying a brewery. Although brewing was a step up the social/economic ladder, it turned out to be one tread too far, for he went bankrupt in 1624. The children now had to earn their own livings. Financial catastrophe explains Judith going out to work, but doesn't tell us what motivated her to paint professionally. Possibly, she began by designing figurative patterns for what survived of her father's weaving business, but we don't really know.

In fact, we know nothing more of her until she unexpectedly appears in The Description of Haarlem written by Samuel Ampzing (1628). He mentions her as apparently co-apprentice with Maria de Grebber, the daughter of the history painter and portraitist Frans Pieterzn de Grebber. We learn that Frans Pieterzn was teaching his daughter to paint, so there would have been female company in his workshop. While Maria is faintly praised for her accomplishment ("Who ever saw a painting made by the hand of a daughter?"), Judith is described more honourably: "Here is somebody else painting with good and bold sense."

After receiving this basic instruction, she probably worked as an assistant in the studio of Frans Hals. No records survive to prove that Leyster studied with Hals (or with his younger brother, Dirck Hals), but a number of her works shows her to have been one of his closest and most successful followers. Should Leyster have been part of either Hals studio, she would have been there prior to 1629, the year she starts to sign and date her paintings.

The Serenade (1629, left), painted when she was 20, shows a crystal-clear affinity with Frans Hals, yet demonstrates that she was already an artist who charted a course of her own. Fascinated by light effects, she captures the effect of flickering candlelight on the dreamy face of the young lute player. The light shines from below, casting remarkable shadows and making his expression more intriguing.

Her Young Flute Player (1635, below right), on the other hand, with its sensitive lighting and soft, loose modelling of the face, bears only the remotest resemblance to Hals' work. A flute and a violin hang on an old, uneven wall (yielding beautiful light effects). Together with the cast shadow at the left, they create a serene rhythm in the painting and anchor the figure in space.

Despite having opened her own workshop, it seems that her relationship with Frans Hals remained warm: it is almost certain that she was a witness at the baptism of one of Hals' daughters in November 1631.

But they did, inevitably, hit a rocky period.

As a Master Painter, she could augment her income by taking apprentices. Students who entered a master's workshop had to a pay tuition fee. She had three such pupils when, in 1635, one of them left without her permission to study under Frans Hals. Hals refused to send the boy back, so Judith brought the dispute before the Guild board. The governors ordered the boy's mother to pay Master Leyster half of the tuition due and ordered Hals to return him to her studio or pay a fine (worth about 1/3rd the price of a small painting). So Judith won her claim but, as so often in judicial matters, it turned out that her own guild affairs were not quite in order: she had neglected to register and pay a guild contribution for her pupils. She had to do so now.

No matter.

What happened next had more effect on her income than any guild dispute.

On 1 June 1636 she married Jan Miense Molenaer (1610-1669), a fellow artist and at times, too, a close follower of Frans Hals. He also produced the genre scenes which had come into fashion for Haarlem's demanding art market: musicians, children and pets, jolly drinking and smoking scenes (as well as melancholy warnings of the vanity of such frivolity), portraits, and -- less typical of Hals but very much flowing from Judith's palette -- seduction scenes and women at domestic activities such as sewing or cleaning a child's hair. That's going to cause a big problem when we try to disentangle Judith's future work from her husband's prolific output.

But, first, the newly weds immediately had to cope with a deepening economic crisis in Haarlem. Its art market had always been highly competitive and, now, they faced a shrinking clientele as well. The couple left their home town and moved to Amsterdam, a boom city where the art market was much more active. In Haarlem, Judith had been part of a constantly interacting artistic milieu. What will she be in Amsterdam? Part II follows.

An Uppity Dutch Master (Part II)

*Although one should refer to the artist as 'Leyster', I allow myself, as one Judith to another, to place myself on first-name terms. It is certainly not meant to demean my namesake in any way.Illustrations

Above left: Self-Portrait, c. 1630, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss

Other illustrations from the Frans Hals Museum catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Judith Leyster: The first woman to become a master painter (text by Anna Tummers).

14 March 2010

Women's Progress is Human Progress

Fifteen years ago, delegates from 189 countries met in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women.

And First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke up that day loudly and clearly:

If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.

This week, on the anniversary of the Beijing Conference, Secretary of State Clinton was at the United Nations, still leading from the front.

[That] was a call to action – a call to the global community to work for the laws, reforms, and social changes necessary to ensure that women and girls everywhere finally have the opportunities they deserve to fulfil their own God-given potentials and contribute fully to the progress and prosperity of their societies.

And for many, those words have translated into concrete actions. But for others they remain a distant aspiration. Change on a global scale cannot and does not happen overnight. It takes time, patience, and persistence. And as hard as we have worked these past 15 years, we have more work to do.
(From her Remarks at the UN Commission on the Status of Women).

Women's empowerment and gender equality, she said, are linked to economic development, ending poverty, and improving health. And added, to loud applause from the dozens of government ministers and more than 2,000 women activists attending the conference, "The status of the world's women is not only a matter of justice. It is also a political, economic, and social imperative."

Deliberately echoing her own words of 15 years ago, she then ringingly declared, "Women’s progress is human progress, and human progress is women’s progress.”

Thank you, Secretary Clinton. Thank you for your continued advocacy on behalf of women and girls. For far too long, over half of the population has not been treated as full and equal human beings with their own rights and aspirations, but as lesser creatures undeserving of the treatment and respect accorded to their husbands, their fathers, and their sons.

I remember once driving through Africa with a group of distinguished experts. And I saw women working in the fields and I saw women working in the markets and I saw women with wood on their heads and water on their heads and children on their backs. And I remarked that women just seem to be working all the time. And one of the economists said, “But it doesn’t count.” I said, “How can you say that?” He said, “Well, it’s not part of the formal economy.” I said, “Well, if every woman who did all that work stopped tomorrow, the formal economy would collapse.”

Go Hillary. The fight for equality for the world's women and girls is truly the moral imperative of the 21st century.

So today, let us renew our commitment to finishing the job. And let us intensify our efforts because it is both the right thing to do and it is the smart thing as well. We must declare with one voice that women’s progress is human progress, and human progress is women’s progress once and for all.

Listen to her speak. It's Women's History Month, after all.

Photo credit of Hillary: by Mario Tama/Getty Images North America

08 March 2010

Afi Ametepe of Amoussoukopé

In honour of International Women's Day, I just made a loan of $ 25 to Afi Ametepe of Amoussoukopé, Togo -- through KIVA "Loans That Change Lives".

First things first.

Who, or What, or Where is KIVA?

KIVA (a Swahili word meaning "unity" or "agreement") is a grassroots micro-finance project starting out with one big idea: one-to-one, real-time lending on the internet to help alleviate poverty around the world. It's mission is to serve the financial needs of people who have been excluded from traditional financial systems.

100% of loan funding raised on their website goes to KIVA entrepreneurs in poor countries. Over time, the recipient repays her loan. When lenders get their money back, they can re-lend to another entrepreneur, donate their funds to KIVA (to cover operational expenses), or withdraw their funds -- a virtuous circle, in short.

In just this one week, KIVA has organized 18,528 loans. That's one loan every 16 seconds.

Here's how it works:

Now, who is Afi Ametepe?

Afi Ametepe is 45 years old, married and mother of two children. She lives in Tovegan, located a few kilometres/miles from Amoussoukopé. She has been a retailer of ‘sodabi’ (a traditional liqueur, distilled from palm wine) for the past five years. The loan from Kiva will allow her to buy more corn and brew and sell more sodabi liqueur.

With her earnings, Afi wants to assist her husband in taking care of the family, and also put some money aside so that she can expand her business in the near future.

She needs $ 275 in total. I kicked off the loans with my $ 25.

A Woman's Day gift from a Wein-Garten to a Palm-Wein woman.

Join me, if you would, with another $ 25 loan for Afi or any of the hundreds of woman entrepreneurs you can meet on the KIVA website.

Help lift women out of poverty. Nothing could be easier than with KIVA and few things will give you a warmer feeling.

This year, Gender Across Borders has called on all bloggers to participate in the first year of Blog for International Women’s Day.

This is Zenobia's simple contribution.

Blog Archive