Judith Leyster and the overlooked women painters of the Dutch Golden Age.
In 1892, a painting that had been attributed to Frans Hals for more than a century became the subject of a dispute between two English art dealers. The 1630 painting, known at various times in English as The Happy Couple or Carousing Couple, was typical Hals and Dutch Golden Age territory—a genre scene of a couple making merry in a tavern. Pink-cheeked, bemused, the woman raises a glass while her male companion sings and plays the violin. When the painting changed hands for forty-five hundred pounds, the buyer sued after discovering a signature other than Frans Hals right below the violinist’s shoe. It was a monogram nobody seemed to recognize: a conjoined J and L, struck through with a five-pointed star.
As a result of the court case’s publicity—the media has always loved it when art experts get it wrong—a Dutch collector and art historian, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, recognized the monogram as belonging to Judith Leyster, one of the first women painters to be admitted to a Guild of Saint Luke in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. Though she’d been praised by the observers and historians of her era, Leyster had essentially been erased from art history since her death in 1660. In 1648, when Leyster was not yet forty, the Dutch commentator Theodore Schrevel had noted, “There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called ‘the true Leading star in art.’ ” Since leyster means “lodestar” in Dutch, Schrevel enjoyed a pun to underscore his point.
Leyster, the eighth child of a brewer and cloth maker, had attracted attention for her conspicuous talents ever since her adolescence, but by 1892 she’d been cut from the bolt of Golden Age canvas. For more than two hundred years, her work was either unattributed or assigned to Frans Hals or her husband (Jan Miense Molenaer, also a painter). After Hofstede de Groot published a scholarly article on Leyster in 1893, seven more paintings assumed to be by Hals were correctly attributed to Leyster, six of them with her distinctive monogram. Meanwhile, the suing art dealer won the court case against the seller. The reattribution from Hals to Leyster knocked 25 percent off the final sales price. As Germaine Greer notes in The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Woman Painters and Their Work, “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered.”
Frima Fox Hofrichter, an art historian who has devoted her career to Leyster’s work, first heard about Leyster’s rebirth into art history during a lecture in the early seventies. Almost twenty years later, Leyster became the subject for Hofrichter’s doctoral dissertation. “My sense that Leyster was forgotten, dismissed, overlooked, absent, and invisible engendered in me both indignation and a sense of mission. So my work began as an adventure. I was exploring unknown territory—trailblazing as a historian and a feminist. That was in the 1970s, when the world was different. It was not enough just to attribute paintings to her, though that was hard enough; I also had to address the question of their meaning. Where did Leyster fit in?”
That was a key question for me, too, as I began work on my new novel The Last Painting of Sara de Vos—a question that Hofrichter helped me refine over many emails and phone conversations. To the extent that I’ve found answers, they bear all the frailties and inventions of fiction.
Historical novelists, like art historians, are plagued by the ravages of paper. Mold, fire, silverfish, absentmindedness, overzealous spring cleaning—there are dozens of ways by which the letters, journals, receipts and ticket stubs of the past go missing. Thankfully, the Dutch Guilds of Saint Luke were meticulous record keepers. In Amsterdam, for example, the guild recorded membership lists and dues, the taxes it paid into a fund on behalf of the city’s orphans, and the fines it levied against citizens for the illegal sale of paintings—cheap imports from Antwerp, sold in taverns and at outdoor markets, were the scourge of the guild. It was possible to walk into an Amsterdam tavern, bakery, butcher, or grocer’s store in the seventeenth century and find every square inch of wall space covered in paintings. The Golden Age made trade in paintings a mass market, with an estimated fifty thousand painters at work across the seventeenth century. Each city’s guild wanted to ensure that the butcher and the burgher alike decorated his walls with bonafide product from its members. It was the ultimate “buy local” program.
Despite the guild’s bureaucratic prowess, there are whole swaths of records that have gone missing. Scholars have often had to piece together membership lists across the Netherlands from various other sources like meeting minutes and accounting ledgers. We know from these that dozens of women were admitted to a Guild of Saint Luke across the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. But because the guilds admitted, at various times, other artists—like embroiderers and engravers, chair painters and pottery painters—we can’t be certain of the exact number of canvas painters. (Metal and wood were also common mediums.) Sometimes a woman’s name is listed without her artistic specialization. Sometimes a woman is listed as the widow of a master painter but it’s noted that she “continues” in her dead husband’s line of work. It seems clear, though, that there were women painters admitted to a Guild of Saint Luke whose work we have never seen: not so much the missing daughters of the guild, but the missing female masters.
There’s some debate about the identity of the first woman to be admitted to a guild. Some sources claim it’s Judith Leyster, in 1633, and others claim that it’s Sara van Baalbergen, in 1631, whose medium is listed as oil paint by the Netherlands Institute for Art History. Like Leyster, she married a fellow artist. Unlike Leyster, none of her work has survived. In many ways, it was the combination of Leyster’s rediscovery and Van Baalbergen’s continued absence that spawned my desire to write a novel about an obscure but haunting golden-age painting. Sara de Vos is a character built out of gaps and silences.
Fifteen years ago, when I was living in Amsterdam, I knew very little about baroque women painters. Like many art tourists, I spent hours absorbing and communing with the iconic paintings of the Dutch Golden Age—the delicate blue hazes in a Rembrandt, the curtains burnished by northern light in a Vermeer, the brooding cloudscapes and russet waves in a Van Goyen. If I paid much attention to the meticulous floral still lifes of Rachel Ruysch, or the spectral vanitas paintings of Maria van Oosterwijck, or the vivacious genre paintings of Leyster, it was as a backdrop to the “prizefighters” of Golden Age painting. It’s ironic that baroque Dutch women appear in about forty of Vermeer’s paintings—more than two-thirds of his surviving works—while we know almost nothing of his female models or their female contemporaries who were master painters in their own right.
My awakening to the power of baroque women painters came unceremoniously, years ago, when I brought up a digital reproduction of Judith Leyster’s self-portrait, circa 1630, on the website of the National Gallery of Art in D.C. Even across the centuries and through the medium of a plasma screen, the portrait struck me as beautifully vibrant and welcoming. I felt as if I’d walked into Leyster’s studio on a sunny afternoon and she’d turned to take me in. Her lips are parted as if she’s about to speak. Her eyes are quick and vital. The brush in her right hand is held almost parallel to the violinist’s bow in the painting she’s working on at her easel, suggesting, perhaps, that music making and painting are deeply connected and ephemeral. There is something wonderfully meta and modern about this canvas of nearly four centuries, painted within fifteeen years of Shakespeare’s death, created—if 1630 is taken—the year an Italian Jesuit discovered two cloud belts against Jupiter’s surface, the year that Boston was founded. In her high lace collar and velvet dress, Judith Leyster isn’t dressed for work but for something momentous—for the act of being at the center of our attention.
Dominic Smith grew up in Australia and now lives in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of four novels: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Bright and Distant Shores, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, and The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.