Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait (1632-1633). National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C
Next Saturday (December 19) the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem presents a Judith Leyster exhibition on the occasion of her 400th anniversary. Leyster (1609-1660), the daughter of a brewer and clothmaker, was probably the first woman in the western world to be designated a 'master painter': as early as 1633 she became a member of the St Luke painters' guild in her native Haarlem. This allowed her to open up her own workshop and accept apprentices.
Leyster's work was clearly influenced by the paintings of Frans Hals, for whom she was a significant competitor. Like Hals, Leyster had a remarkable knack for painting portraits and composing lively scenes of people drinking in taverns, merry folks playing music, and frolicking kids and the like. She was also inspired by Rembrandt to try her hand at some innovative lighting effects.
Although well known during her lifetime, Leyster and her work were largely forgotten after her death until 1893, when a painting acquired by the Louvre was found to have Leyster's distinctive monogram (her initials entwined with a five-pointed star) hidden under a false signature reading 'Frans Hals'. This discovery led to renewed research and appreciation of Leyster's oeuvre, which had previously been confused with that of Hals.
In 1636 she married the painter Jan Miense Molenaer, and being a wife (and mother) clearly had its disadvantages. Her artistic output decreased dramatically and hence the body of work she left is pretty much limited to 48 paintings ascribed to her. Twelve of them have never been traced and another seven are heavily disputed. The Haarlem exhibition will have some 10 major paintings from Leyster's oeuvre on display, the centre piece being her Self-Portrait (1632-33). These paintings were culled from museums and private collections in both Europe and the US.
Incidentally, earlier this week a new - heavily damaged - flower still-life by Leyster has emerged at the Frans Hals Museum. Its signature ('Ju(...)molenaers 1654') seems to indicate that housework didn't keep her away from the easel all of the time.
The Judith Leyster exhibition will be on display until May 9 in Haarlem and is organised in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which hosted the exhibition earlier this year. For a pictorial survey of Leyster's works and information on their present whereabouts, go here.