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).


  1. Perhaps I must apologize to the Chinese visitor who has tried three times to post a comment but I cannot allow comments in a language that I cannot read.

  2. Dear Chinese visitor, please cut it out. Don't force me to put on comments moderation. Get someone to translate what you want to say ... or just stop it.

  3. Rats. I've deleted yet another comment in Chinese and activated comments moderation. What a pain for nothing!


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