Woman in wide lace collar painting a picture of violinist

10.4 Judith Leyster, a Dutch Master Painter

In 1892, two English art dealers came to an agreement on a price for a painting called Carousing Couple. Painted over 200 years earlier in 1630, it was a great example of the Dutch Golden Age of Art. No more did true art consist only of Bible scenes. The new masters were capable of producing a Madonna and Child, but they also wanted to show ordinary people doing ordinary things. They called it modern figure painting.

The Carousing Couple shows a round faced young woman raising a glass of something alcoholic while leaning in close to a man playing the violin. As a violinist myself, my immediate worry is that the girl’s going to get an elbow in the gut, violin playing and cuddling being two activities that do not mix very well. But, you know, they seem happy, so whatever. The 1892 buyer was happy to pay £4500 for the painting. That’s almost a million dollars in today’s money. But it was worth it because the artist was Frans Hals, one of the leading lights of the Dutch Golden Age.

Man playing violin while woman leans in close with a glass
Carousing Couple (1630) (Wikimedia Commons)

The buyer went home and examined his new purchase closely. And there on the table runner, just above the violinist’s foot was a very small monogram of the artist. Only it wasn’t the monogram of Frans Hals.

He’d been swindled! He’d spent a fortune on a painting by a nobody with absolutely no reputation whatsoever. And he sued.

The resulting investigation brought us the story of Judith Leyster, who was famous in her own time, but completely forgotten until 1893, when her work was painstakingly picked out from the work of all the men to whom it had been misattributed.

Judith was born in 1609. The Dutch Republic was in its infancy, but it was booming. It attracted hard-working people who wanted political, religious, and economic freedom. Among them were the English pilgrims who would stay for 12 years before deciding to board the Mayflower and head for North America.

The Dutch who remained behind were doing well. Business was good, money was rolling in, and while I wouldn’t say they’d achieved social equity or anything ridiculous like that, there was a lot more cash in hand for ordinary tradesmen and professionals than had usually been the case in the history of the world.

In the past, artists were largely dependent on commissions from the church or the nobility because nobody else could afford art. But in the Dutch Republic, for the first time in history, ordinary citizens were the primary patrons of artists (Welu, 11).

Just why Judith decided to be one of these artists is a mystery. Her family were not artists. Her father was a textile worker. Then he bought a brewery, which he proceeded to run into the ground. In 1624, he declared bankruptcy, everything was public, failing to pay your debts was a sin, so he was banished from the Lord’s Table until all debts were settled, which he couldn’t do, so he and his wife hotfooted it out of Haarlem (Welu, 17).

Judith, the 8th of his children, was still a teenager and she stayed in Haarlem.

How or why the daughter of a bankrupt brewer learned to paint is not in the record, but it is possible that she was already an apprentice in the workshop of Frans Pietersz de Grebber. She is listed near him in Samuel Ampzing’s description of Haarlem. Here’s what he says:

Now, I have to mention Grebber

The father and the son and also the daughter I have to praise.

Who ever saw a painting made by the hand of a daughter?

This daughter’s name was Maria, and she wasn’t the only girl painting because Ampzing then adds:

*See here another who paints with good keen sense.

And on this last sentence about the good keen sense, he puts a star and off in the margin, there’s a star like a footnote reference and it says Judith Leyster (quoted in Welu, 19).

All right, so setting aside his surprise that a girl can paint, we have Judith (and Maria de Grebber) as praiseworthy artists in Haarlem in the 1620s. It’s hard to pin down the year because Ampzing originally wrote in 1621 but revised in 1626-27 and published in 1628 (Welu, 19). Judith was only 12 in 1621, so it’s hard to imagine she made the first draft.

Her first surviving datable paintings are from 1629: The Serenade, which depicts a singing lute player, and the Jolly Toper. Toper is not a word I knew, but apparently it means a drunkard.

Smiling man in hat with a red feather
The Jolly Toper (1629) (Wikimedia Commons)

In these two paintings, Judith is already using her monogram: a J and an L squished together to share the downward stroke, followed by a star.

1629 JL* monogram of Judith Leyster

The star was a pun on her name. Leyster means Leading Star, like the stars sailors navigate by, or the star of Bethlehem. And speaking of which, a word about pronunciation. My usual technique when I’m not sure is to watch a few videos on YouTube, but in this case, it didn’t help. Lie-ster, Lay-ster, and Lee-ster all made an appearance from fairly respectable sources. I went with Lie-ster on the basis of a tour guide in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Anyway, in 1633, Judith Leyster joined Harlem’s Guild of St Luke as a master painter. She was 24 years old. To be eligible for guild membership, she must have studied for at least 3 years with a master. She must have earned money as an assistant for another year. And she paid three gold guilders for her membership (Welu, 66). She was not the only woman in the guild, but she was almost the only woman. Most women who painted didn’t need to join themselves. They learned to paint from male family members, and they could piggyback on their guild membership.

Guild membership gave Judith the right to sell her work within city limits, funeral expenses and longterm disability payments if she needed them, and the right to take on pupils of her own (Welu, 44).

Yes, Judith Leyster had her own workshop. We know this because guild records show that one of them left after only a few days, and Judith still wanted partial tuition payment, so there was a bit of a flap. The workshop system was well established.

Generally, the master charged tuition commensurate with experience. The youngest apprentices paid the most. They were taught the basics of drawing and painting. They also cleaned palettes and brushes, prepared panels and canvases, and minded the shop. After a while they were taught to grind pigments and mix colors because these things didn’t just come in a plastic squeeze tube. The oldest apprentices paid the least because they were producing paintings to be sold. The money went to the master (Welu, 45).

The disputed tuition in Judith’s case was extremely modest if the boy was a complete novice. That might mean that as a woman she could not drive a hard bargain. But if he was coming to her from another studio and already had experience, then the amount is reasonable. We just don’t know (Welu, 46).

We do know that at the time of the dispute she also had two other students, all of them boys (Welu, 20).

Woman sewing by candlelight while man leans over her with money in hand
Man Offering Money to a Young Woman (1631) (Wikimedia Commons)

Besides tuition, Judith was supporting herself with sales. All painters wanted commissions, which had a money guarantee. Only two of Judith’s surviving paintings appear to be commissions, and the one from this time period is the Portrait of a Lady. We don’t know who the lady is.

The rest she must have painted to be sold to collectors. She would have made sales from her shop, or at fairs and festivals, or by lottery. Lotteries were held fairly often. A ticket cost 2-4 guilders and gave you a chance of winning a whole swoop of paintings at once. It was a good way of moving inventory quickly.

And this tells you something about the amazing state of the art world at the time. Think about how many original works of art you have on your walls at home. I don’t mean copies or prints, just original works of art. My guess is none. Unless you are related to the artist.

But in the Dutch Republic, ordinary people, just your average butcher, baker, and candlestick maker were buying art. Partly for the love of it, partly as an investment. It was a gamble. If the artist later became famous, the value would skyrocket.

It was a good time for artists, though competition was stiff. There were 30 other master painters in Haarlem, some with long established reputations. Inventories show that Judith’s work was circulating. She was not Haarlem’s most prestigious painter (that was Frans Hals), but her works were valued at just below the top-ranked artists. In other words, she was a success but not a phenomenon. Many artists dream of being so lucky.

Boy in red hat playing flute, violin on the wall.
Young Flute Player (1635) (Wikimedia Commons)

Almost all of her known works were painted between 1629 and 1635 when she was in her early 20s, supporting herself as a single woman. One of those works is a self-portrait. It’s delightful. She painted herself painting, and she’s looking directly at the viewer, a casual smile on her face, as if daring you to ask if she really did her painting in that poofy white lace collar straight out of the heads-on-platters phase of Dutch art history. Surely she saved that for less messy occasions.

Woman in wide lace collar painting a picture of violinist
Self Portrait (1633) (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1636 Judith married fellow painter Jan Miense Molenaer. We know of only one painting done by her afterwards. And because this is a women’s history podcast, let’s examine that.

The angry feminist take is that this is yet another example of a talented woman pressured into giving up a promising career so that she could clean up and provide children for a man.

That might be true, but we have no record of what Judith thought about it. Many a daughter of a bankrupt businessman would have considered this marriage to be the very definition of success. Molenaer was successful and prosperous, and together they had five children. There’s no reason to think that Judith saw this as a reason to complain.

There’s also no reason to think she stopped painting. We know of one tulip painting, her second commission, done after the couple moved to Amsterdam, which was larger and richer than Haarlem. She may well have painted others that just haven’t survived or been identified as hers.

Red and white tulip with green leaves
Early Brabantson Tulip (1643) (Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, she absolutely had a career, even if it wasn’t painting, because the Molenaers were into art dealing, the sale of art supplies, and real estate. Judith’s name was on many of these transactions. Basically she had moved from art production to management. Again, in many fields that would be considered professional success.

Dutch women of the time were actually famous for their authority in these matters. The accounts of foreign travelers often mentioned it. Sir William Mountague wrote

‘Tis very observable here, more Women are found in the Shops and Business in general than Men; they have the Conduct of the Purse and Commerce, and manage it rarely well, they are Careful and Diligent, capable of Affairs, (besides Domestick) having an Education suitable, and a Genius wholly adapted to it. . . The Women of these Parts are all for making their Daughters and Nieces, or Grand-Children great Fortunes; they let the Boys shift for themselves, they say they can best do it.

Mountague, 183-184

If Mountague seems complimentary, be assured that other travelers were not. Englishman Fynes Moryson saw so many women out and about that he speculated that the climate and excessive drinking made them unable to beget male children. As a result of the gender imbalance, older women took young and tractable men as husbands and “kept them in a kind of awe and almost alone.” They were unable to leave the house without the wife’s permission, or conversely driven from the house by her scolding. He confesses that other nations have families touched by this disease, but he concludes that “the women of these parts, are above all other truly taxed with this unnatural domineering over their husbands” (Moryson, 288).

So that definitely sounds like Judith is the one winning this battle. And for the record, three of her five children were boys. Sounds like a pretty normal ratio to me.

In all seriousness though, the laws in the Dutch Republic were pretty much the same as everywhere else: women were permanent minors and generally couldn’t transact business without permission of the male guardian. The difference was that Dutch women only needed tacit permission to do so, and the whole country was very pro-business, so yes, a lot of women were buying and selling, just like God and Adam Smith intended.

Judith certainly was buying and selling. In 1657, she appeared in court and presented her register (not Molenaer’s register) as evidence. Molenaer also gave her power of attorney (Welu, 29-30), so there’s that unnatural domineering for you.

Some of their real estate was purchased half in cash, half in paintings, which is pretty cool. I can only imagine what my bank would say if I tried to pay my mortgage in paintings. And it’s easy to imagine that some of those paintings might be Judith’s own work.

In 1659, both Judith and Jan were sick enough that they drew up a joint will. Jan recovered. Judith did not. Her grave is unknown.

Until that point, her name still appeared on guild records and lists of artists, but within a year, her name had vanished. In part that was due to the name change. As time passed, people didn’t know that Judith Leyster and Judith Molenaer were the same person. Her works were bought and sold and inventoried under Jan’s name. Or Frans Hals’ name.

Her identity was entirely lost until the 19th century lawsuit, and even today identification can be tricky. She has about 20 known works, the about is there because some are disputed.

The buyer won his case in court. The Carousing Couple was not by the great Frans Hals, therefore he had been swindled. One thousand of his £4500 pounds were returned to him. In the words of Germaine Greer, “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered” (quoted in Smith).

So consider this podcast episode a cap thrown. And others, with much more clout than me have now thrown their caps as well. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a Gallery of Honor, which until 2021 had exactly zero works by a female artist. Now it has three: one of them is The Serenade by Judith Leyster (Cascone, McGreevy).

Man in striped costume looking up and playing lute
The Serenade (1629) (Wikimedia Commons)

There is also a bi-annual Judith Leyster prize for a Dutch female artist. The award includes money and exhibition at a major museum. I just find it slightly ironic that the name of the museum is the Frans Hals Museum. Maybe they’re trying to make amends.

Selected Sources

Cascone, Sarah. “For the First Time Ever, the Rijksmuseum Will Hang Works by Female Dutch Masters in Its Most Prestigious Gallery.” Artnet News, 11 Mar. 2021, news.artnet.com/art-world/rijksmuseum-female-artists-gallery-of-honor-1950686. Accessed 3 Apr. 2023.

McGreevy, Nora. “For the First Time in Its 200-Year History, the Rijksmuseum Features Women Artists in “Gallery of Honour.”” Smithsonian Magazine, 21 Mar. 2021, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/rijksmuseum-will-display-work-women-artists-its-gallery-honour-first-time-180977209/.

Moryson Gent, Fynes. Itinerary Vvritten by Fynes Moryson Gent. First in the Latine Tongue, and Then Translated by Him into English. Vol. Part 3, 4th Book, John Beale, 1617, quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A07834.0001.001/1:44.4?cite1=Moryson;cite1restrict=author;rgn=div2;view=fulltext;q1=women. Accessed 8 Apr. 2023.

Mountague, William. The Delights of Holland: Or, a Three Months Travel about That and the Other Provinces. John Sturton, 1696, name.umdl.umich.edu/A51180.0001.001. Accessed 8 Apr. 2023.

Smith, Dominic. “Daughters of the Guild.” The Paris Review, 4 Apr. 2016, http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/04/04/daughters-of-the-guild/.

Welu, James A, and Pieter Biesboer. Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World. Waanders Publishers, 1993.

One comment

  1. There are so many details here that I love: the star pun, the young woman being offered money (it looks to me like she’s saying, while continuing to work, “No, sir. I do not need nor want your money.”), and all those women in the shops! Hooray!


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