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.


  1. Anonymous12/9/10 14:04

    I usually do not leave a comment, but you really impress me, also I have a few questions like to ask, what's your contact details?


  2. Out of curiosity, where did you find your information about a "second" Jolly Toper that was bought by the Kaise-Friedrich Museum in 1874?

  3. @R Kenny: I really can't remember but I suppose it must come from Hofrichter's Judith Leyster. A woman painter in Holland’s Golden Age (Doornspijk NL 1989).


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