I don’t usually like Dutch painters – nothing against them, but I much prefer the lush, warm, exciting mythical works of Italian painters. But when I saw the lively paintings of Judith Leyster (1609-1660), I liked them! Although many Dutch artists made genre paintings – people playing instruments, having fun in groups and such – Leyster also painted domestic scenes and experimented with light and shadow.
The number of her surviving works hovers between 20 and 35; many of her paintings were previously attributed to her male contemporaries, including one with her signature that was painted over by an art dealer! She usually signed her name “Judita Leystar” or “JL” with a star – “lei-star” is what the Dutch called the North Star.
Unlike the other historical women painters I’ve profiled, Leyster was not born into an artistic family. She was the eighth child of a brewer and clothmaker; we can assume she showed artistic talent at a young age, as she was mentioned in a book written about Haarlem when she was 17. She trained under Frans Pietersz de Grebber and joined the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke in 1633, when she was 24. She was the second woman to do so, the first being Sara van Baalbergen two years earlier.
Being a member of the guild allowed Leyster to set up her own, independent art workshop with apprentices and everything. Although many women artists worked in Haarlem at the time, they were part of family workshops and didn’t enjoy the name recognition, control, and payment for apprentices that members of the guild did. One of these was the daughter of de Grebber, Maria.
Leyster painted steadily for about ten years total (1626-1636), three as the head of her workshop, but her painting suffered when she got married in 1636 to a fellow painter. Raising five children (two survived to adulthood), managing the household and properties, and helping her less-talented husband was the death-knell of her own career. Only two paintings have been dated to the time after her marriage.
She died in 1660 at the age of 50 and was forgotten soon after; she regained some recognition when the aforementioned work with the painted-over signature was discovered to be hers.
This month I’ll be talking about her genre paintings and portraits, which will also give a good overview of Dutch painting at the time.