Day 34 – Judith Leyster

Judith Leyster, Self Portrait, c. 1630, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

For JW≈ – and any Dutch mothers I know.

Yesterday we looked at Rembrandt trying to be someone else in 1640, but here, ten years earlier, with have an artist at the height of her powers and very happy to be herself: Judith Leyster. And so she should be – her talent was recognised when she was still a teenager, and continued until well after she stopped signing her paintings. Just look at this – she was brilliant. Whereas yesterday we were thinking about the way that the composition of a self portrait is partly governed by the way you paint it, especially when you are trying to pretend that you are not painting it, today Leyster is dealing with the problems of actually showing herself painting. Although for her, there don’t seem to be any problems: she makes it look easy!

There is, as I have said before (Picture Of The Day 28), a disproportionate number of self portraits of artists at their easels which are by women. The common assumption is that men didn’t have to prove that they could paint, whereas women did. It might be this that led to the suggestion that this work was painted to celebrate Leyster’s admission to the artists’ guild in Haarlem, in the Netherlands, in 1633. She was one of only two women painters ever to be admitted as Masters. Not only that, but she took on three pupils of her own. When one of them left her to enter the studio of Frans Hals – he wanted a Mister as a Master – Leyster took the boy’s mother to court seeking compensation for her loss of earnings – and won! However, the style of the painting and the style in which she is dressed both suggest it is a slightly earlier work, from around 1630, when she would have been 21 at most. She was born in Haarlem in 1609, where her father was a brewer, with an establishment called the ‘Ley-Ster’, or ‘Lode Star’ – i.e. the star that leads the way, or North Star. ‘It is the star to every wandering bark’ as Shakespeare put it – although, of course, he was talking about love. The family took its name from the brewery, and she often signed her works with a star: JL~*

She might have trained with an artist called Pieter De Grebber – she is certainly mentioned alongside him in 1628 when Samuel Ampzing wrote a paean ‘in praise of the City of Haarlem in Holland’, where she was said to have ‘good and keen insight’. At that stage, she was 19. Twenty years later, Theodore Schrevel wrote a similar panegyric, in which he stated, 

‘There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called “the true Leading star in art.”’ 

Leading star she might have been, but by this stage she had hardly signed any of her work for 12 years. That is, not since 1636 – the year in which she married. But that doesn’t mean she stopped painting. She married another artist, Jan Miense Molenaer, and seems to have worked as his assistant – it would have been easier to do business that way. Not only that, they had five children. Or rather, let’s put it this way, she had five children. That can stop you painting. After her death (1660) the inventory of her estate included paintings by ‘Mrs Molenaer’ – and almost immediately her own name was forgotten.

In this particular painting she goes all out to show us what she can do. She sits at her easel, paintbrush in her right hand and palette in her left. Now, given what I said yesterday, the fact that her right shoulder is foremost, and that she looks towards us, would suggest that she was right-handed. And indeed she is holding the brush in her right hand. However, given that she was looking at a mirror at the time, and not us, that would have been her left hand holding the brush. Having said that, we know full well that artists don’t always paint what they see – and they were fully capable, when they chose to do so, of altering what they saw in the mirror to make it look like it should in real life. So she has shown herself as right-handed, as I have no doubt she was. 

Indeed, her right hand is the closest thing to us, thus emphasising that this is where her skill lies. It’s not just her hand, but also her forearm that is in the foreground, parallel to the picture plane, extended towards the painting, beautifully and richly dressed. This is the hand that can paint that sleeve. Look at the intricate buttoning and the turned back, transparent cuff with its broad lace trim. This is an expensive item of clothing – which in itself speaks of her success – and a breath-taking passage of painting, nonchalantly thrown off as if it is incidental. Her hand sits in front of her broad, starched collar, with yet more expensive lace extended around it. It circles her neck, and makes her head stand clear, and although she would have been looking at her own reflection, she convinces us that we are the focus of her attention. That’s how relaxed she is, elbow poised on the back of the chair, glancing out while working, looking at us with her lips slightly parted, slightly smiling. Now try and think of all the paintings you know where someone is smiling or laughing. Very few, I imagine, because there are very few – it’s a very hard thing to get right. And she does it twice in one painting.  Who wouldn’t admire this young, happy, confident – and brilliantly talented – woman?

And yet – would she really have dressed like this while painting? Of course not! It’s about as impractical as you can get. But she does say – look at me, I’m painting; I know it’s a man’s job, but I can do it too while remaining perfectly lady-like. She also tells us she is a successful and respectable member of society, boosting her social status in the way that male artists always did, while also showing us, unlike them, that she was hard at work – or rather, showing us that, for her, this work was easy, her talent came naturally. Castiglione called this ability to carry off difficult tasks with apparent ease sprezzatura, but that can wait for another day.

How good is she? Well, very good. She has a firm grip on her palette, but has not bothered much with the smears of paint that sit there. However, she does manage to hold onto a cloth as well, not to mention a whole bunch of spare paintbrushes. I can’t see exactly how many there are, but I’ve seen it listed as ‘no fewer than 18’, and even as many as ‘22’. Why so many? Well, because she’s that good. That’s how subtly she can distinguish between tones and hues, with a separate brush for each, and between the finest brush, used for the delicate strokes of the lace, and the broadest, used for the slabs of paint on her skirt, as it blossoms out under her boned bodice. She is also no one-trick pony. Technical analysis has shown that the canvas she is working on originally showed an image of a woman’s face – possibly a portrait, and possibly this self portrait – but she changed her mind. By showing herself working on a painting of a musician she is demonstrating that she can work in two separate genres of painting – portraiture and genre (‘normal people doing normal things’). This is also a quotation from one of her earlier works, which we know was successful, as several copies survive: The Merry Company. It was sold by Christies in 2018, but I don’t know where it ended up.

There are other reasons for choosing this particular figure. Notice how her paintbrush is seen next to the bow of the violin. Not only is she saying that, like the musician who has practiced and mastered his art, she has practiced and mastered hers, but also she could be drawing a comparison between the arts. Both take us to other worlds, change our mood, and give us new insights. And like the effortless jollity of the fiddle player – in the context of The Merry Company he is probably a carnival performer – she has improvised this image for our delight. A common phrase used to describe a good portrait is ‘a speaking likeness’, and one topos – a Greek word commonly used to mean a rhetorical convention – which was often used for a portrait during the Renaissance and after was that ‘it only lacks a voice’, as if to say, it looks so lifelike it is almost real. As Leyster’s mouth is open, she could be speaking, and she is painting a man whose music we can imagine. The power of her image is that our sense of vision can evoke the sense of hearing – that’s how good she is.

So why was she forgotten? Well, she became Mrs Molenaer. The two did paint in a similar style, and, with her own name forgotten, many of her works were attributed to him. The rest were attributed to Frans Hals, who undoubtedly influenced her. He may have taken one of her students (he also had to pay a fine for taking a student from her, by the way, but then so did she, for not having declared her students to the Guild…), but they were friends. In 1631 she was a witness at the baptism of one of his children. It seems unlikely that she worked with or for him, but in the freedom of her brushwork, which at times borders on the reckless (as his certainly does), her work comes very close to that of Hals. This carried on until 1893. The Louvre had purchased a painting which was signed ‘Frans Hals’, but on closer inspection they realised that the signature was a forgery, covering up a strange doodle: JL~*. It was only then that her name was rediscovered. Despite this, it wasn’t until the late 20th Century that Leyster’s talent was fully appreciated, and even this painting was attributed to Frans Hals up until 1930. Yes, it depicts a woman painting, holding at least 18 paintbrushes, but, the Art Historians decreed, a man must have painted it. That’s how stupid some men are.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

7 thoughts on “Day 34 – Judith Leyster

  1. Is it possible she could have used 2 mirrors, thus painting a reflection of a reflection, which is the “right” way round? Angling them correctly is a bit tricky, but I think it could be done, particularly in a studio with plenty of space.

    Judith Nash


    1. Possible, yes, but unnecessary, I think – she was good enough to make it up. And given that she wouldn’t have been wearing these clothes while painting, it’s likely that either someone else was wearing them – and she just looked in the mirror to do her own face – or she studied the fabrics without anyone modelling them.


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