A 17th -century talent lost and found
Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster (1609–1660) was quickly recognized as a rare talent in her native Haarlem. By just age 24 she had been admitted to the city’s prestigious painters guild. But due to years of misattribution, her name remained largely unknown until the late 19th century.
Read on to learn more about the life and career of this extraordinary artist...
1. A star is born
Judith Leyster was born in Haarlem, in the Netherlands. Fun fact: She was the eighth child of a brewer, and the “Leyster” family name was taken from her father’s brewery, called the “Ley-ster,” or lode star.
2. Shooting to the top
Leyster joined the Haarlem painters guild in 1633, one of only two female painters to do so in the entire 17th century. Leyster ran her own studio, and had her own apprentices and students.
Studio life was hardly drama free: Leyster once filed a complaint against Frans Hals, the most important artist in Haarlem at the time, for poaching one of her assistants. Hals was made to pay a fine – but kept the assistant.
3. Leyster’s bawdy band
Leyster primarily produced genre paintings and portraits. Many of her compositions feature one or a few figures happily engaged in domestic activity or merrymaking – playing music or, more often than not, drinking!
4. Woman in the mirror
The carefully considered informality of this self-portrait reflects the influence of Frans Hals, who was famous for his free, open brushstrokes. Leyster greatly admired Hals – assistant-stealing notwithstanding – and incorporated elements of his style into her work. But did she ever study with him? No one knows for sure.
A closer look: X-rays have revealed that the man in the picture-within-the-picture (who appears in another of Leyster’s works, Merry Company) was actually painted over a figure of a woman – perhaps a second self-portrait of Leyster herself?
5. Becoming Mrs. Molenaer
Leyster’s solo artistic career was sadly short-lived. In 1636, she wed fellow Haarlem artist Jan Miense Molenaer, and painting gave way to children and domestic responsibilities. Leyster stopped painting in her own name, but she likely contributed to the works produced in her husband’s studio.
6. The Name Game
Following her death in 1660, Leyster essentially disappeared from the art historical record. Her works were either left unattributed, or credited to Molenaer or Hals – despite Leyster’s distinctive signature, which featured her initials and a star, a clever play on her last name.
7. Fake it till you make it
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Leyster’s talent finally began to be acknowledged. In 1893, The Happy Couple, a painting long attributed to Frans Hals, was revealed to be a Leyster: her initials were found underneath a faked signature of Hals. That discovery, by Dutch art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, and an article he published on her, led to the attribution of seven additional works to Leyster.
Despite the success and acclaim she achieved in her lifetime, centuries of misattribution pushed Leyster completely out of the frame. Happily, though, years of scholarly detective work have succeeded in bringing more of her art to light. In 2009, Leyster was the subject of a retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. – finally getting the spotlight she deserves!