Judith Leyster (1609-1660)

Master painter and businesswoman

Judith Leyster Man Die Een Vrouw Geld Aanbiedt 564 Mauritshuis

Judith Leyster of Haarlem was a Dutch 17th-century artist. There were only a few female artists at that time, and she is the most famous. She was the first woman to be given the title of ‘master painter’ by the painters’ guild. This meant that, like male artists, she could set up her own studio, train students and even sell her paintings.

Other female artists mainly painted still lifes, but Leyster was more ambitious. She liked to paint modern ‘genre paintings’, which showed household scenes. She did not paint them with fine details, but with a ‘loose’ technique. This was unusual, and Leyster was the only Dutch female artist who worked in this way at the time.

Life in Haarlem

By the age of twenty Leyster was a skilled painter and a local celebrity. She might have learned to paint at the studio of Frans de Grebber (1573-1649). Although Leyster was talented and ambitious, only a few dozen paintings by her exist today. In 1636 she married painter Jan Miense Molenaer (c. 1610-1668). They had five children, but only two lived to become adults.

After her death Leyster was forgotten, until she was ‘rediscovered’ in 1893 by art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863-1930). He recognised her monogram on seven paintings. Today, Leyster is seen as one of the most important Dutch painters of the 1630s.

Jacob Van Ruisdael Gezicht Op Haarlem Met Bleekvelden MH155 Mauritshuis
Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c. 1670 - 1675

Modern figure paintings

Leyster painted popular ‘modern’ figure paintings. No other woman did this at the time. Her paintings show people dressed in the latest fashion, doing all kinds of activities. Some show groups of beautifully dressed young men and women at parties. Leyster painted them in a very original way. Her paintings always focus on the figures, their emotions and their activities. She did not take much trouble with the details of the surroundings and background. Leyster kept them to a minimum, so all our attention is focused on the people.

In Leyster’s time, painting human figures was seen as one of the most difficult challenges for an artist. Painters had to make a person’s feelings and the expression on their face seem real. Painting a smile is very difficult, for example. Leyster was one of the few artists who was very good at this. She even painted herself smiling in one of her self-portraits. This large painting might even have been her ‘masterpiece’ – the test of skill that would allow her to become a member of the guild.

Lively brushwork

Leyster’s loose brushstrokes can be seen clearly in her paintings. Producing a lifelike image using this technique is difficult, but Leyster did it perfectly. Interestingly, she also used the same kind of brushwork in her still lifes, as well as in her figure paintings. Usually painters would choose a more refined technique for still lifes.

Leyster’s loose brushwork is similar to that of Frans Hals (1582/83-1666), who lived and worked in Haarlem at the same time. He also had a ‘rough’ painting style. Even during her lifetime, Leyster’s paintings were sometimes mistaken for work by Hals. For many years people thought she must have been trained by Hals, but there is no evidence of this.

Frans Hals Lachende Jongen MH1032 Mauritshuis
Frans Hals, Laughing Boy, c. 1625

Light and dark

Leyster often used exciting light effects and sharp contrasts between light and dark in her paintings. This was fashionable in the 1630s, and many other artists did the same thing, including Rembrandt (1606-1669) and the Utrecht Caravaggisti, who worked in the style of Caravaggio. Unusually, Leyster sometimes filled half the picture with shadows. She also allowed faces to disappear almost completely into the darkness.

Judith Leyster Man Die Een Vrouw Geld Aanbiedt 564 Mauritshuis
Judith Leyster, Man Offering Money to a Young Woman, 1631

Master painter and businesswoman

In 1633 Leyster became a member of the Guild of St Luke, so from then on she could call herself a master painter. At that time, the Haarlem guild had about thirty members, and Leyster was the only woman there. Being a member of the guild gave her a good position in society. Unlike many female artists in the 17th century, Leyster was not from a family of artists, or from a rich family. She painted to earn money. As a member of the guild, she could compete with male fellow artists. Her paintings sold for similar prices.

After she married, Leyster began to focus on other things. She painted less, perhaps because she could earn more selling art for her husband’s business. She also managed several buildings in Amsterdam, Haarlem and Heemstede, which earned the family a lot of money. Leyster was therefore not only a famous artist, she was also a successful businesswoman.

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