Judith Leyster's 400th birthday will be celebrated at the National Gallery of Art
with an exhibition of ten of her most engaging paintings, joined by some 20 works by 17th-century contemporaries, including her presumed teacher Frans Hals and her husband Jan Miense Molenaer, as well as musical instruments of the period depicted in the art. Judith Leyster, 16091660 will be on view from June 21 through November 29, 2009, in the Dutch Cabinet Galleries in the Gallery's West Building.
"Leyster's oeuvre consists only of about 20 known works, yet her use of bold colors, dramatic lighting, and vigorous brushwork have established her as one of the foremost painters of her generation," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "The Gallery is delighted to celebrate Leyster's 400th birthday with this selection of her worksour Self-Portrait as the centerpiecepaired with loans from American and European collections."
The Frans Hals Museum in Leyster's hometown of Haarlem will be hosting a European version of this exhibition, to include many of the works seen at the National Gallery of Art, as well as additional works in both private and public European collections. The exhibition will be on display from December 2009 until May 2010.
Leyster's dynamic Self-Portrait (c. 16321633) may have been her presentation piece for entrance into the artist's Guild of Saint Luke of Haarlem. She created a composition that emphasized her talents in two areas: portraiture and genre scenes. In the self-portrait, she sits as a dignified member of society, in a pose reflective of Frans Hals' informal manner, as she turns toward the viewer with her arm over the chair, her warm and open expression revealing happiness. The figure on the easel is a study of the fiddler from her painting Merry Company (c.16301631), also included in the exhibition.
Men and women in intimate or humorous circumstances are the subjects of a number of Leyster's genre scenes, images that reflect broader 17th-century concerns. In The Proposition (1631), a woman focused on her sewing is approached by a man who offers her coins as he touches her shoulder. This private scene, lit only by the light of an oil lamp, depicts the moment when a sexual offer has been made; however, the woman's modest dress and body language convey that she is unwilling to participate. A more humorous nighttime encounter is depicted in A Game of Tric-Trac (c. 1631), where Leyster has created a dynamic amorous interplay among the three elegantly dressed figures. In another night scene, The Last Drop (c. 16301631), a skeleton holding an hourglass hovers over two joyful drinkers, providing viewers with a warning about the transience of life.
The theme of music is frequently seen in Haarlem paintings from the 1620s and 1630s, particularly by artists in Hals' circle, including Leyster and Molenaer. Young Flute Player (c. 1635) reveals Leyster's use of natural light to enliven her subjects within their environments. In other scenes of music-making, such as Merry Company and Concert (c. 16321633), Leyster captures the lightheartedness of revelry and good fellowship.
Two small panel paintings by Hals may have been part of a series depicting the five senses, now lost, with one image representing sight, in Singing Girl (c. 16261630), and the other representing hearing Boy Playing a Violin (c. 16261630).
Music serves as a central theme in Molenaer's The Violinist (c. 16301635), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (c. 1640), and The Duet (c. 16351636). The lute player in the last two paintings is the artist himself; in The Duet, his wife Judith strums a cittern. A 17th-century flute, a recorder, a lute, a violin, and a dance master's fiddle on loan from private collectors, the Library of Congress, and Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington will be installed nearby.
Although no dated oil paintings are known from her later years in Amsterdam, Leyster likely painted Still Life with a Basket of Fruit around 1640. The only dated work from this period is a silverpoint and watercolor depiction of a tulip that she painted for a tulip catalogue in 1643.
Judith Leyster (16091660)
The eighth of nine children born to a Haarlem mother and a Flemish father, Judith Leyster was baptized in Haarlem's renowned Saint Bavo Church on July 28, 1609. Her father, Jan Willemsz, was a silk and linen weaver who in 1601 bought a house called De Leystar, a name that he added to his own; the family then spelled it Leyster. A pun was made on this name by a contemporary historian of Haarlem, who described Judith Leyster as a "leading star in art." After several unsuccessful business ventures, the father became bankrupt in 1628 and moved the family to Vreeland, near Utrecht, where, it appears, Leyster was influenced by the candlelit scenes of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, particularly Hendrick ter Brugghen (15881629) and Gerrit van Honthorst (15921656).
Leyster returned to Haarlem where it is likely she spent some time as a student to the great Haarlem painter Frans Hals (c. 1582/831666). Leyster's style closely reflects the dynamically painted images of Hals, who possessed a remarkable ability to capture the vibrant youthfulness of children, a quality found in many of her works.
Membership in the organization of professional artists known as the Guild of Saint Luke of Haarlem was not restricted to men in the 1600s; however, she was one of only two women recorded in the guild as painters in the 17th century. Leyster entered the guild in 1633. Membership in the guild provided Leyster with a professional status and allowed her to establish her own workshop.
Most Dutch artists painted for the open market, which meant that they had to create a style and type of image that was appealing, innovative, and recognizably their own. Other than for her commissioned portraits, Leyster would seem to have painted primarily for this open market, selling her paintings at lotteries and fairs, or through art dealers or personal connections.
Soon after Leyster and Jan Miense Molenaer (c. 16101668) married in 1636, the two moved to Amsterdam. During their Amsterdam years, it seems that Leyster primarily cared for their five children and managed the family's business ventures. Although she continued to paint, only two known works date from these years (several still lifes, now lost, are listed as from her hand in the 1668 inventory of Molenaer's estate). She may have assisted her husband in his work, but documented commissions after their marriage only mention his name. After returning to Haarlem in 1648, they also purchased a farm in nearby Heemstede, where they lived during the summers, and where Leyster was eventually buried.
Leyster was held in high esteem by her peers; however, after her death in 1660 her career as an artist was nearly forgotten. By the end of the 19th century, the correct attribution of every one of her paintings had been lost, either identified as anonymous or given to another artist. One possible reason for Leyster's obscurity is that her independent artistic career ended in 1636 when she married Molenaer. Another reason may be that Leyster signed her works only with her initials and a starJL*. The monograma pun on her last name (meaning leading star, pole star, or comet)was the key to Leyster's rediscovery in 1893, when an art historian identified her as the artist whose monogram appeared on a number of paintings.
Curator, Publication, and Related Activities
The exhibition was organized by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, in consultation with Leyster scholar Frima Fox Hofrichter, professor, history of art and design, Pratt Institute, New York. Hofrichter is the author of a sixteen-page exhibition booklet, available free at the exhibition entrance. Funding for the booklet was made possible by Mrs. Henry H. Weldon, with additional support from Mrs. George M. Kaufman.