Judith Leyster’s radical artistic afterlife and the lasting importance of art

I had the opportunity a year ago to attend the Southeast premiere of “Loving Vincent,” the movie about Vincent van Gogh’s death animated entirely in painted frames inspired by his classic style. What struck me most about the film was a frame at its end that said that the artist had only sold one painting during his entire lifetime. His other 900 plus paintings were not bought or even respected until after he died.

This obscurity during life, fame after death becomes quite the pattern in many other artists that we celebrate today. In fact, I bet if you Google your favorite artist, or even writer (Edgar Allen Poe, for instance), who has been dead for over fifty years, you’ll find that he or she became infinitely more popular after rigor-mortis set in.

The notion completely baffles me. I could gain nearly no status or respect during my life but 200 years from now there may be a bidding war on whatever form of eBay they have then, over my kindergarten backpack. Someday, the very computer I’m writing on right this second may end up in a museum and the coffee-stained tank top I’m wearing could be proudly displayed on a mannequin in an adjacent display.

While there aren’t currently any bidding wars over Judith Leyster, a Dutch Baroque painter, she, like most other artists, did not gain the recognition she deserved until a couple centuries after her death. Her accomplishments during her lifetime broke barriers and paved paths but it was primarily in her afterlife that her name became associated with a quest to discover the critical role women played, and still play, in art.

Judith was born on July 28, 1609, in Haarlem in the Netherlands. The Dutch had just recently broken away from Spanish control so Judith grew up in a newly independent republic. This social and political atmosphere was ideal for artists. No longer did painters have to rely on the patronage of the church or the aristocracy. Instead, they marketed to the merchant class, creating a shift in the kinds of subject matter portrayed. As opposed to the dramatic, religious scenes traditionally associated with the Baroque, Dutch painters depicted still lives, portraits and genre scenes (images of Dutch social life, where most of the subjects are “merry” a.k.a. sh*tfaced).

Judith was the eighth out of nine children born to a cloth-manufacturing family, whose surname at that point was Willemsz. When the family neared bankruptcy, they changed their trade to brewing and switched their last name to match that of their brewery: Leyster, which meant “Leading Star.” The new family business proved quite successful because, after all, who doesn’t love beer? With their new influx of funds, the Leysters were able to pay for Judith to study painting, a subject that she had shown a true knack and interest for from a young age.

Little is known about her training and I swear there are more speculations out there on the matter by art historians than there are Illuminati conspiracies on Reddit. Some say she may have trained with Frans Hals, as the similarities between their work were numerous, almost disastrously so in the far future but we’ll get to that in a bit. However, there is no evidence supporting that Hals or anyone else was her teacher. The likelihood, however, based on the careers of other artists at the time is that she apprenticed with a couple of other painters, gaining sufficient experience that, by the time she was 20, she had completed her first work: her self-portrait.

Image Credit: Google Art Project

I’ve gotten the chance to see this painting a couple of times at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and I’ve always loved the personality that radiates from it. As opposed to other self-portraits at the time where the artist is interrupted mid-work, Judith makes direct eye contact and opens her mouth to either laugh or say something. Only a few art historians have noted the fact that her paintbrush is pointed directly at the crotch of the subject she is painting, which they interpret as evidence of her bawdy wit.

There are more art historians who comment instead on the infrared scan of the painting. The scan revealed that the original subject of the canvas in the painting, below the fiddler, was a young woman, perhaps herself. While I personally would have appreciated the Inception-like notion of having a self-portrait of a self-portrait, it’s not clear the art market at the time would have appreciated such a focus on one single woman. Judith also might have replaced herself with the fiddler to display her talents as both a portrait painter and a genre painter. It’s your classic 2 for 1 special.

In 1633, she became the second female painter to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. She opened up her own studio and had three students working as her apprentices. However, Frans Hals poached one of these students and brought him over to work for him at his studio. Judith, rightly outraged, filed a complaint with the Guild. Hals paid the required fine but refused to return the student, whose mother only paid Judith half of what she asked for in reparation.

Undeniably a woman in a man’s world, she found ways to use her art to show a woman’s take on popular scenes, much like Artemesia Gentileschi changed the way a different Judith was depicted. One of the traditional subjects in Dutch painting at the time was brothel scenes in which drunken men held out fistfuls of coins to prostitutes, who were made out to be seductresses or thieves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

In “The Proposition,” Judith confronts this idea. In the painting, a woman rebuffs the looming figure of a man and his offering of coins to focus on her needlework. By isolating the figures far away from the convivial atmosphere of a brothel and by intensifying the light source to dramatize the shadows, the painting conveys the same kind of unsettling feeling the woman has to the man’s unwanted advances.

Judith also uses the symbolism of sewing to point out a paradox in Dutch society at the time. Sewing was a skill that every woman, no matter what social class, was required to be able to do perfectly. It was a sign of their virtue. However, the in-and-out motions associated with needlework quickly morphed into a euphemism for sex. Judith becomes one of the first to outline the inconsistency that women are expected to be virtuous and pure and yet still function as an object of sexual desire for men. The painting itself is less than a foot squared, practically whispering this bold statement.

Judith’s painting career primarily existed within the span of six years, from 1629 to 1635, ending with her marriage to a fellow painter, Jan Miense Molenaer. Around the time of their marriage, there was an outbreak of a plague, which prompted the couple’s moved from Haarlem to Amsterdam. Soon, Judith gave birth to five children, Johannes, Jacobus, Helena, Eva, and Constantijn. Johannes, Jacobus, and Eva would eventually die during their childhood.

Those looking at Judith from a modern perspective as the pinnacle of feminism, a woman who can have it all, cite the fact that she sacrificed her career for love and family as a bit of a letdown. However, my personal definition of feminism is that a woman has the same right to be human just as much as a man. I don’t blame Judith or look down on her in any way because she put aside her work while she moved (which, back then, wasn’t as easy as renting a U-Haul), gave birth to five children, raised them, and then watched as three of them died.

Image Credit: Art Net News

One of the only works that she completed after her marriage was found last year in the collection of an English Country estate. It is a late self-portrait and, comparing it to her first self-portrait, it’s clear that she has seen much sadness and hardship in the handful of decades that separate them. It’s believed this may be the last work that she painted before she died in 1660, however, as her paintings are slowly being rescued from obscurity and brought into the light they deserve, there may very well be other late paintings out there waiting to be found.

The painting that started this revival of her art was called “Carousing Couples” and was sold to the Louvre in 1893. However, the work was sold as a Frans Hals masterpiece, many arguing that it was “one of the finest he ever painted.” The French, at the time, were obsessed with the lively subjects of the Dutch Baroque and they paid a great sum of money to obtain this “Hals.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia

However, once conservationists carefully cleaned the dust and grime away from the canvas, they also removed a faked signature of Hals, revealing a monogram of a “J,” an “L” and a star shooting out to the side. This was how Judith signed all of her artwork, possibly predicting that if her signature was blatantly female, her work might not have sold at all.

Image Credit: Pinterest

At first, the Louvre curators believed the “J” could reference Frans’ brother, Jans, but after a long, frenetic trial, art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, accurately attributed it to Judith. The men were furious and demanded some of their money back. Looking back at it, Germaine Greer, author of “The Obstacle Race,” noted, “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.”

This indignation led to the attribution of seven additional works to her, plus two more from the past decade. As more and more of her works have been discovered and placed in the public eye, women throughout the past century have used Judith’s story as a jumping off point to explore the injustices of their own times. In fact, “New Yorker” art critic Peter Schjeldahl, upon reviewing a 2009 retrospective of Judith’s work at the National Gallery of Art, said “I can’t decide whether Leyster feels contemporary or makes me feel Old Dutch. In her work, social and sexual anxieties tingle with fire-alarm immediacy.”

In this sense, Judith’s work has taken on a life of its own beyond her death and given both men and women a new way of looking at their world. While it sucks that her ingenuity, as well as that of countless others, was not recognized during her lifetime, in my mind, the best artists know they have a responsibility to create art that continues to challenge society to reflect on what it considers beautiful and just, even centuries after it has been produced.

Do you have a fabulous lady that you’d like to see on this site? I’d love to hear about her! Send me a suggestion at thefoldingchairhistory@gmail.com and make sure you are keeping up with the site on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Pinterest. See you around!