Dutch Treat

Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World Netherlands, May 16–August 22, 1993, and Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, September 19–December 5, 1993.

by James A. Welu and Pieter Biesboer et al.. catalog of an exhibition held at the Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem, The
Worcester Art Museum/Yale University Press, 391 pp., $60.00

Many foreigners who visited Holland during its Golden Age in the seventeenth century remarked on the extraordinary qualities of Dutch women, not only their industrious domestic virtues but also their social informality, even their commercial savvy and enterprise. Like Lodovico Guicciardini and Fynes Moryson before him, the English observer James Howell was much impressed by the business acumen of Dutch women. “In Holland the wives are so well versed in bargaining, ciphering and writing; that in the absence of their husbands on long sea voyages they beat the trade at home, and their word will pass in equal credit.”1

Perhaps no woman has come to personify the confidence, ability, and assertiveness of the rich tradition of Dutch feminism more clearly than the artist Judith Leyster (1609–1660). A thorough new book by a team of a dozen historians, which serves as the catalog of a recent show of the work of Leyster and her contemporaries, now helps to consolidate that reputation. Leyster’s qualities are most vividly projected in her confident Self-Portrait, where, seated casually before an easel with a painting in progress of the figure of a fiddler, the painter seems to pause in her work and turn to the viewer, her arm resting lightly on the chair back. She looks us squarely in the eye and smiles.

Leyster made a specialty of half-length, life-sized images of jolly drinkers and smaller, full-length images of groups of revelers and street entertainers, and of domestic scenes, often with children. These paintings were of the type that Pieter Biesboer, one of the organizers of the exhibition, reminds us were described in seventeenth-century inventories as moderne beelden (modern figures), and are now generally referred to as genre paintings. Leyster’s large half-length images often employ a painterly style of modeling which, at least superficially, resembles the broken, bravura brushwork of Frans Hals, to whom many of her paintings were once mistakenly assigned. The casual pose of her Self-Portrait is also derived from Hals. On the other hand, her more intimately conceived pictures are closer in style to the art of Frans Hals’s brother Dirck.

Leyster’s known oeuvre is small; while Frima Fox Hofrichter accepted forty-eight paintings in her recent monograph of the artist,2 the present book reduces that number to only about twenty accepted works, of which fourteen are catalogued here. Two of these—the Carousing Couple and Children with a Cat and an Eel, both important paintings—unfortunately were not exhibited in either Haarlem or Worcester. However some of the artist’s best paintings could be seen in both, including the nocturnal scene Man offering Money to a Young Woman and Young Flute Player.

Notwithstanding the famous pitfalls of the biographical fallacy in art history (it was, for example, long thought that Pieter Bruegel was a peasant because he painted low life scenes), there is some factual support for the reality of Leyster’s self-assured image. As Ellen Broersen’s careful examination of the evidence suggests, Leyster seems to have been the only woman of her time…

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