In Holland's most recognized era, there were many famous artists, such as Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Judith Leyster. Judith was one of the only women who was allowed to gain entry into the brotherhood of the painters guild in Haarlem.   She was the only woman who had a workshop that had male students. She was very skilled at painting ordinary men and women drinking, smoking, and playing instruments, this was extremely rare for a woman in that era.

Judith Leyster was born on July 28th, 1609, in Haarlem, Netherlands. When she was around 10 years old, her father who owned a brewery and was also a weaver by trade, was in financial ruins and was completely bankrupt by the time she was 14. This forced Judith to learn a trade to help support herself, and as you will find out, the trade she learned was as a painter.

She painted scenes depicting everyday life, portraits, still-lifes, and some small etchings; it is not known if any drawings by her exist.  Her specialty was in small informal scenes, that usually had women seated by a lit candle.  Her work was influenced by both the Utrecht Caravaggisti and Frans Hals.

Judith was said to have worked in Hals’s shop, where she adapted several of his paintings into styles of her own. These works include "The Jester", a copy after Hals’s "The Lute Player", and the "Rommel Pot Player".

It has also been said that she began her career at the shop of a Haarlem painter named Frans Pietersz de Grebber,  she is mentioned as studying with Frans, in Samuel Ampzing’s poem about Haarlem that he wrote in 1627. This could explain the style of her lesser known portraits she made later in life, for example Portrait of a Woman, the thin space that seems to propel the woman forward on to the picture.

In 1628 Leyster’s family moved to Vreeland, where she was influenced by Hendrick Terbrugghen, Utrecht Caravaggisti,  and Gerrit van Honthorst. Caravaggisti's influence can be seen in the late evening scenes of her works, including the ones she made in Haarlem, such as "The Serenade", which portrays a lute player illuminated by flickering candlelight, the candle itself does not appear in the painting. The wide brushstrokes on the costume and the lute players face also show an influence from Hals, which gave an illusion of being impressively large, to this small painting. The lute player's upward stare is a typical style used by Leyster.

Leyster has been credited with bringing the style of using a visible light source in a night setting painting to Haarlem.  This style was seen in her painting "Last Drop", with the lit candle between the drinker and the smoker, and the burning lamp in "The Proposition".  In "The Proposition", the light from the streetlamp illuminates the scene of a man offering money to what appears to be a prostitute for sex, this style and subject matter was common among the works of Caravaggisti; but the woman in Leyster’s piece does not appear to be a courtesan,  nor is she encouraging the actions of the man, Leyster seemed to have questioned the assumption of the woman being a seductress.

Leyster became a member of the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke in 1633, for her admission piece she submitted her Self-portrait, that showed her sitting at her easel in a formal dress, holding a palette and brushes, while she was painting a fiddler; this fiddler was also in her painting "Merry Company".

 In June of 1636 Leyster married the Haarlem portrait painter named Jan Miense Molenaer, they had five children, only two children survived their parents.  They would live in Amsterdam until 1648, in October of that year they moved to Heemstede. They rented out  many of the properties they owned in Amsterdam and Haarlem for additional income.  Leyster’s Tulip pages, were painted in watercolor and used a technique of drawing with a silver-tipped instrument on specially prepared parchment paper.  This suggested a change of style and subject matter, that may have been due to her new surroundings. Many of Leyster's paintings were found in the inventory of Molenaer’s home after his death in 1668. These works included several other still-lifes, and many works that are now lost. Leyster’s painting seemed to have slowed greatly after her marriage, and after her children were born, although she may have helped in painting some of her husbands works.

In 1648 she was given great praise by Theodore Schrevel, who had written a book on Haarlem. In his book he makes a pun on her name, calling her "Ley sterr", a "leading star" in the art world.  Leyster would have the last laugh though, she used his pun for her monogram, by forming her initials and a star that pappear]ed to be shooting out to the right.

Although Leyster received high praises from her contemporaries, her name was never mentioned in other early sources of art recognition, such as Cornelis de Bie’s Het gulden cabinet, published just one year after her death. By the end of the 19th century she had become virtually unknown. Her monogram was said to be either unreadable, or, as in a court case in 1892 involving her painting the "Carousing Couple", was said to contain Hals’s monogram. The "Carousing Couple"  was a painting of a couple who were drinking, smoking and making music in a gazebo, when it was decided that this painting was actually the work of Leyster, it marked the turning point in her reputation as an artist. Soon after this happened, there were discoveries of other paintings by her, many of which had previously been said to be the work of Hals.  Others, such as her "Young Flute Player", had once been called the work of Jan de Bray. Leyster’s paintings of women and children, and her works of women with their lovers may have served as prototypes for other painters of the later part of the 17th century, and the early part of the 18th century.

Leyster had records showing she taught three students in her shop: Willem Woutersz, David de Burry, and Hendrick Jacobs. Although there is no evidence of any works they may have produced, it is believed that they made many copies of her paintings for her.

Leyster died on February 10, 1660, in Heemstede, Netherlands.

Many of her works still hang in museums around the world, such as:

  • The Louvre, Paris, France
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
  • National Gallery, London
  • Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
  • Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy
  • Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts

Her self-portrait can be seen at

More information on other lesser known female artists can be found here

Source: Women Artists. 1st ed. : Ruggio Publishing, 1977.
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