From the 14th until the 18th century, membership in the artists’ Guild of St. Luke was incredibly important for artists who wanted a chance at a solid career. Unsurprisingly for the time, women were almost never granted membership, especially as masters. One of the rare women who did achieve this status was Judith Leyster, thanks in part to her exceptional self-portrait.
Leyster is a fascinating figure in terms of the relatively rare professional success of women artists through the ages, and the fact that the art market still often devalues the work of women artists, even those like Leyster who managed a high level of success during their lifetime. Leyster proves to be an important artist for those who look at the ongoing discussion about the roles of women in art through the ages.
Judith Leyster was born in Haarlem in 1609. She must have shown some artistic talent early on, as she is mentioned in a book about Haarlem artists as early as 1628. She may have studied under Frans Hals as her artwork does show many similarities to his style, but it is unclear if she was a student or simply a contemporary. She certainly was friends with Frans Hals, as she was a witness at the baptism of one of his children in 1631. By 1633, Leyster was a member of the St. Luke’s Guild in Haarlem, one of only two women to become a master artist member of this important branch of the guild in the 17th century.
Leyster’s body of work focused mainly on genre scenes, portraits, and still-lifes. In her early self-portrait, most likely painted around 1633, the viewer sees a sampling of her themes, which, in fact, is often the purpose of self-portraits. They served as an advertisement of her abilities in various aspects of painting. For example, it is unrealistic that she would have worn such formal and fancy clothing while painting, but by showing herself wearing fine clothing, she shows her skill at depicting these expensive materials, such as the silk sleeves, ornate lace collar and delicate cuffs.
After her death in 1660, the bulk of her paintings was misattributed to her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer or Frans Hals, despite the success and respect she had during her career. Even her 1633 self-portrait was attributed to Frans Hals until 1949. Fortunately, despite centuries of misattribution, intentionally or unintentionally, Leyster is finally regaining the recognition she earned in her lifetime.
For more about Judith Leyster and an in-depth analysis of her self-portrait, read Issue 56 of Dutch the magazine.
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