The Dutch experienced a Golden Age of art in the 17th century and it’s now well-known that Judith Leyster was a rare talent among many other Dutch Masters of the era. However, like many women artists of the past, much of her work was misattributed to Fran Hals or her husband Jan Miense Molenae.
Only after some recent discoveries has Judith Leyster solidified her place in art history. In this blog, we’ll briefly explore her interesting life as well as go into a Judith Leyster self-portrait that resides at the National Gallery of Art, and seen on our Old Masters Art Tour.
It was only in the 19th century that her signature was discovered, hidden beneath none other than Frans Hals’ signature on top. This misattribution led to the discovery of at least seven other works by Leyster hidden away under a man's signature.
Quick Facts About Judith Leyster
Judith Leyster was born in Haarlem in 1609. At a young age, she became one of only two women during the entire 17th century to be admitted to the city’s esteemed painter’s Haarlem Guild of St. Luke in 1633, although not much else is known about her artistic training.
She would later own an art studio, employing apprentices and assistants where she painted mostly portraits and genre paintings. In general, the subjects of these portraits were often doing household chores or leisurely activities like playing an instrument.
Leyster was married to fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer only a few years after attending art school in 1636. After her marriage she stopped producing artwork under her own name.
How Judith Leyster's Name Was Lost for 200 Years
But, it seems that she still painted in her spare time even if she wasn’t completing entire works during this period. Molenaer also ran an art studio and it’s likely that Leyster contributed to many of his paintings.
This pull between family and career is still a conflict women still face and perhaps there will never be an easy answer. Still, it’s a comfort to assume that she was still painting here and there for the love of the art, foregoing the credit.
She died in 1660, aged 50. She was buried at a farm just outside of Haarlem, and her artwork not on display or recognized as hers for close to 200 years. It is possible that the inventory of her estate attributed many of the paintings to "the wife of Molenaer" may have contributed to the misattribution of her work to her husband.
Taking On Frans Hals
One of Judith Leyster’s paintings that stands out is this rather informal self-portrait with its wide brush stokes, common of many Dutch Masters of the time. However, this quality was likely inspired by another painter, Frans Hals who was considered the most important painter in Haarlem at the time.
Leyster held Hals in high regard as his works were undoubtedly impressive. However, she wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself in her dealings with him.
In one instance, Hals poached one of Leyster’s assistants. So, Leyster filed a complaint against him. Still, the result was complicated -- Hals paid a fine for the infraction but was allowed to keep the stolen assistant. One can only admire her courage regardless.
Art Misattribution Contributed by Society and Law
Judith Leyster, however, is not only a female artist icon for her ability to break down boundaries for women artists who came after her. But, the fact that most of her work was obliterated from the historical record due to misattribution, then reclaimed long after her death… that’s worth talking about.
With this information, who knows how much masterful artwork has been created at the hands of women and misattributed to a man. And, surrounding this topic we are forced to discuss how women artists balance their work life with their own family life, estate planning and contracts, and how we attribute work that is a collaboration.