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Self- Portrait, Judith Leyster | Arts & Activities
Nov 2015

Self- Portrait, Judith Leyster

Self- Portrait, Judith Leyster

DETAIL: Judith Leyster (Dutch; 1609–1660). Self-Portrait, c. 1630. Oil on canvas; 29.4″ × 25.6″.National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss. Public Domain.

Women Artists


Painter. Businesswoman. Wife. Mother. If a 21st-century woman “having it all” comes to mind, think again. The words describe the Dutch Baroque painter Judith Leyster (1628–1660). Leyster was born in Haarlem, the eighth child of a brewer and tavern owner. Although no records exist of Leyster’s art education, historians surmise that she must have been privately tutored, perhaps by the Dutch master Frans Hals (1580–1666).

She was known professionally as early as 1628, when she was mentioned in a book by Samuel Ampzing as having “good and keen insight.” Her first signed work dates to 1629, four years before she gained membership to the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke’s; the second female artist to be registered in the prestigious guild. Leyster maintained a studio-workshop, took on apprentices, and accepted commissions. She once sued Hals over a student leaving her workshop to study with Hals. Hals later paid Leyster three guilders to settle the matter.

“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.’ ”

— Theodore Schrevel, Harlemias, 1648

Like other Baroque artists of the day, Leyster specialized in genre scenes. Typical subject matter, like that of Hals, included scenes of people enjoying life, a genre called “merry company.” Typical to this genre are musicians playing instruments, actors, and people carousing in taverns and reveling in the nightlife. Leyster married the painter Jan Molenaer in 1636. Shortly thereafter, her output diminished.

After Leyster’s death in 1660, her name faded into obscurity until, in 1892, a painting, originally attributed to Hals, was discovered to have her unique monogram: the initials “JL” intertwined in a five-point star (the monogram is a pun on her name, which in Dutch Means “leading star”). Although her name and work were rediscovered, she was often dismissed as a female, second-rate Frans Hals.

As recently as 1964, English critic and art historian James Laver (1899–1975) wrote, “Some women artists tried to emulate Frans Hals but the vigorous brush strokes of the master were beyond their capability, one has only to look at the works of a painter like Judith Leyster (1609–1661) to detect weakness of the feminine hand.” 

Thankfully, the art world has given Leyster the credit she deserves. Many museums have held retrospectives of her work, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with its 2009 exhibition celebrating her 400th birthday.


This month’s Art Print, Self-Portrait, by the Dutch painter Judith Leyster (1609–1660), is perhaps one of the most lively and inviting self-portraits of all time.

Leyster was something of an art star in Haarlem, and her easy self-confidence and poise are evidenced in this work. Dressed in a formal dress and stiff lace collar, Leyster is presenting herself to the viewer as a professional of the highest order. “In fact, Leyster’s self-portrait serves as a piece of self-promotion, advertising both her products and her skill. Her facility with the brush is suggested by the freshness of her own image and by her fistful of brushes, which she easily handles against her palette.” (Source: www.nga.gov)

Like Hals, by whom she was clearly influenced, the brushwork is loose and full of energy. The work on the easel is a figure of a fiddler, one she used in an earlier “merry company” painting. (Infrared analysis of this work revealed that Leyster originally painted a female in this space, probably her own image).

For teacher support materials related to this work of art, visit: www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/education/teachers/lessons-activities/self-portraits/leyster.html


From The December 2015 Issue Of Arts & Activities


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