Judith Leyster: A Woman in a Man’s World

And with this article we have reached the last few articles we will publish in March. Today’s article is on the Dutch painter Judith Leyster. 📝

When she was active as a painter at the beginning of the 17th century, it was very uncommon for a woman to be part of this domain and make a living of the income Leyster made with selling her art. It took great skill and dedication to rise in the art world of the “Golden Age”. Her name is still quite unknown in Art History as many of her artworks are lost, missing and ones existing are heavily debated on whether or not she actually painted them. 🎨🖌

Nevertheless, the fact that she owned her own workshop, taught pupils and was registered in the guild of painters, speaks for her work as an artist. A woman in that time making a living from art is surely something extraordinary and should be part of the Dutch art history! 👩‍🎨

If you want to know more about her artworks and why the production suddenly stopped, make sure to read the article below!

Judith Leyster| * 28-07-1609 | † 10-02-1660| The Netherlands | Painter

A woman in a man’s world, trying to establish a career for herself as a professional painter, trying to make a living independently, trying to make up for the economical mistakes her parents had made… Judith Leyster worked hard to achieve it all during the “Golden Age” in the Netherlands.

Judith Leyster was born in 1609, and her father, Jan, worked in textile fabrication. He originally came from the south of the Netherlands, which today is called Flanders, to come to Holland for both religious freedom and economic possibilities, like many other people did during that time. In the year 1618, her father bought a brewery. Until 1623, the family had enough money to give Judith and her siblings a good education: she learnt to read and write. Unfortunately, the investment in the brewery did not end well for the family, they had to file for bankruptcy in 1624 and flee the city of Haarlem due to social pressure. 

These circumstances did not make it easy for Leyster to start her career as a painter. Other female painters in the Golden Age came from artistic or well-off families, and had the benefit of good family contacts. Leyster did not have this benefit, her family was looked down upon and they were practically forced to flee! However, this did not stop her at all. It is unknown where exactly she learned how to paint, but it could be in the workshop of Frans Pietersz. De Grebber (a portrait- and historical painter) or maybe even in the workshop of the famous Frans Hals. From 1629 on, she signed her paintings with her initials and a star, a reference to her last name (ley-ster, ster means star in Dutch).

She became a full member of the Saint Luke-guild (the guild of painters) in 1633, which gave her the right to sell her paintings on the art market in Haarlem. If she would have been from an artistic family, and her father or husband would have been part of the guild, she would not have to become a full member herself to get the benefit of selling on the art market. This was not the case and so she had to pay for the contribution of the guild herself (which was much higher because she was not a daughter from an artistic family). Leyster then went on and established her own workshop with male pupils who she taught to paint. Her work mainly consisted of genre paintings, which she sold on the art market, only two works that are known from her are commissioned by patrons. 

After Judith Leyster married Jan Miensz. Molenaer in 1636, there is only one watercolor painting of a tulip known to be produced by her. It is said that the lack of production from her marriage to her death in 1660, is due to the five children she gave birth to, in combination with the fact that she seems to have worked and helped in the workshop of her husband, who was also a painter. The responsibility for the housekeeping and the administrational side of the workshop, the selling of the paintings, the different houses they had (they rented them to other people), and so on, would sure made her busy. Maybe she did make some paintings during that time, it could be possible that they are not discovered yet, due to the lack of interest in her work for centuries. From the 48 works that are known to be made by her, some are missing (no one knows where these paintings are), and others are subject to the discussion if they were actually made by her. Some progress could be made in the future on this particular aspect of Art History!

It seems unlikely to me, however, that the circumstances of a busy family life completely stopped her from producing art. She was so dedicated earlier in her life to make it as a woman in a man’s world, to free herself from the negative connotations of her family’s name and to establish herself as a professional, independent woman and painter that it seems a little strange she would just give up painting after she was married. She came from far, not having much benefits like male painters or even female painters from rich families, and made the career all by herself. 


Author: Veerle Klaassen
Image: Judith Leyster (self portrait)


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