Summary of Judith Leyster
Overlooked by art historians for centuries, Judith Leyster was a central figure in the Dutch Golden Age. A recognized master, her lively genre scenes built upon contemporary trends with their informality and technical mastery. In particular, she was known for upbeat, informal images of happy musicians and raucous groups. She was financially successful and respected by her peers, yet centuries of misattribution and neglect sidelined her legacy until more recent scholarship that focused on forgotten women artists.
- Painting lively scenes of musicians and drinkers, Leyster specialized in capturing the leisures and entertainments of the Dutch Republic during the 17th century. Her relatable subjects and informal, but technically precise, style reveal an artist who was connected to international trends of Baroque painting, but added to them her independent vision and style.
- Leyster's jovial subjects appear to enjoy life, yet she also imbued these works with potential moralizing interpretations. This was common among Dutch Baroque painters, who sought alternatives to traditional religious subjects but still desired some larger symbolic meaning in their work. Leyster's paintings, however, tend to remain ambiguous and subtle, encouraging the viewers to draw their own conclusions.
- Forgotten by art history, Judith Leyster's legacy was recovered by feminist art historians who, beginning in the 1970s, began to question the absence of women from the history of art. Leyster's 17th-century success and subsequent erasure from history provides one important example of the many women who have been omitted from the artistic canon.
Biography of Judith Leyster
Judith Leyster’s 1633 Self Portrait is notable not just because X-rays have revealed that the figure on the background canvas was previously a girl, but because, as critic Peter Schjeldahl points out, the painted artist’s brush is playfully pointing at the replaced man’s crotch. He wrote: “The painting is a joy and, retroactively, a feminist icon.”
Important Art by Judith Leyster
This painting is one of two earliest paintings attributed to Leyster. Here we see a good natured, ruddy-cheeked man, lifting up his beer jug as if to show us that his drink has just run out. He wears a greenish-blue long tunic, and the sloping angle of his beret suggests it may be in danger of falling off at any moment. On the table in front of him is a small pipe and some wrapped tobacco.
As art historian Cynthia Kortenhorst-Von Bogendorf Rupprath tells us, the subject of this painting was popularized by the group of artists known as the Utrecht Carravaggisiti before becoming a subject common among Haarlem painters from the 1620s. The subject's clear enjoyment of smoking and drinking might have suggested both the pleasures of life and the dangers of excess. Many paintings of this period included subtle moralizing messages on the transience of life and its indulgences. In adapting this common theme, Leyster clearly shows her knowledge of contemporaneous painterly trends and the desire to give them her own spin.
The idea of vice is contrasted to cheerful demeanour of the subject of the painting. The intricate detail of the sitter's face conveys a sense of the individuality and personality that recognizes his enjoyment of his evening (or afternoon) and predicts that he has not had his last drink.
This painting, which is also known as The Jolly Companions, depicts a couple as they drink and play music together. The man, wearing a wide black hat and large white ruff, leans back into his chair, his legs casually crossed, whilst in his hands he holds a violin aloft, as if about to play. His companion, nestled just behind him, holds an open beer jug and a glass of beer almost to her lips.
Like the Jolly Toper, Leyster depicts a moment of fun, and fills the picture with a lively energy. The facial expression on the young woman is particularly interesting: her cheeks flushed, she sends her half-smile towards her companion, looking at him fondly, or perhaps rather lasciviously. This could lead us to speculate on their relationship: are they a couple? Are they husband or wife? Or is another kind of transaction going on? Leyster leaves this unclear; she does however seem to suggest that this woman is sure of herself, and is not shy to show her own desire.
The man's direct look towards the viewer is open and relaxed, suggesting he hopes that the crowd enjoys his music as much as he does. Leyster often depicted musicians, either individually or in groups, creating her own interpretations on the theme of "the merry company" which often showed people of mixed genders drinking and having fun.
This painting was attributed to Frans Hals for hundreds of years due to a deliberate forgery. Leyster's signature was discovered in 1893.
This striking self-portrait appears to show Leyster as a woman fully at ease with herself and in command of her work and her career. She appears at her easel, taking a moment before finishing a painting of a young smiling violinist. She turns to face the viewer, as if we have interrupted her, yet she appears welcoming. The details convey her mastery: she holds eighteen brushes in her left hand along with a palette through which her thumb is looped; in her right hand she holds one brush, poised to make its mark. She wears a formal ruff and luxurious dress - which she is unlikely to have worn in real life while painting, but which speaks to her financial success and social status.
Author Dominic Smith writes of this image: "Her lips are parted as if she's about to speak. Her eyes are quick and vital. The brush in her right hand is held almost parallel to the violinist's bow in the painting she's working on at her easel, suggesting, perhaps, that music making and painting are deeply connected and ephemeral". Like her portraits of other people, this image also seems to celebrate joy and movement. But while her earlier paintings seem to show people relaxing and drinking, here Leyster shows joy in her work.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Judith Leyster
- Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her WorldOur PickBy James A. Welu
- A Light of Her OwnBy Carrie Callaghan