July 28 – Happy Birthday, Judith Leyster

Posted on July 28, 2017

Today we celebrate one of the artists who lived and worked during the Dutch Golden Age.

The Dutch Golden Age is the century (the 1600s, roughly) in which Dutch art was considered among the best in the entire world. Not just art! - Dutch trade, science, and military might were also considered top-notch.

Some of the Dutch artists that were dominant in the Dutch Golden Age are still super famous today - Rembrandt and Vermeer (think Girl with a Pearl Earring). Others include a landscape painter, a portrait painter, a sculptor, an architect or two - and what all these people that I've mentioned here have in common is that they were all men.

Like many other societies of the time - and before and after the time - Dutch society during the 1600s considered the sphere of women to be the home.

Still, some strong and driven women did manage to contribute in more public ways, and today's birthday is one of those women.

Judith Leyster, who was born on this date in 1609, was a painter. She painted scenes from everyday life, and portraits, and still life studies (you know, the whole flowers-in-a-vase / bowl-of-fruit kind of painting).

The first known signed work of Leyster's is dated 1629, when she was 20 years old. By 1633, she had become a member of an artists' guild, specifically the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. An artists' guild was like a combination of a professional organization, a trade union, and a secret society. Members oversaw the practice of their crafts - self-regulating so (for example) painters didn't steal other painters' apprentices, and also banding together in a strength-in-numbers way so that people who purchase art don't scam artists.

Leyster may have been the first woman in the Haarlem Guild. At least five women joined during the 1600s. Many more may have been members whose names were not recorded because they were "just" continuing their dead husbands' works, or because their forms of art - such as embroidery or pottery painting - were included in the guild but not listed.

Leyster's portraits were more relaxed, more active, more natural, less posed than most portraits. For example, check out her self-portrait - THAT pose is hardly rigid and formal!

Leyster's relaxed portraits were similar to another Dutch artist at the time, Frans Hals. Who, by the way, was a man.

Leyster married a painter, Jan Molenaer. Who, by the way, was a man.

The important point here is that, for more than 200 years after Leyster's death in 1660, Leyster's existence as an artist was erased. Gone. Poof!

Her paintings were not missing. But they were misattributed - they were considered to have been painted by either Hals or Molenaer. According to art history, Leyster herself had no body of work and didn't exist.

Finally, in the late 1800s, an art historian rediscovered Leyster, who used to sign her paintings with her monogram "JL." 

Art historian Frima Fox Hofrichter said that, for too long, "...Leyster was forgotten, dismissed, overlooked, absent, and invisible..."

But now her paintings hang in important museums like the Louvre - with her name on display for all to see.

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