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 to become a member of the painter’s guild in Haarlem (with the possible exception of the obscure Sara van Baalbergen). Not surprisingly, many Dutch women artists3 came from artistic families, but Leyster, the eighth of nine children, was the daughter of a weaver and failed brewer. While her self-promoting name, Leyster (meaning lodestar, or leading star, and possibly referring to the star of Bethlehem), was adopted by her father, the monogram with a ligated “J.L.” and a shooting star which she used to sign her paintings was her own invention. In a valuable survey of art collecting and economic conditions in Haarlem, Thera Wijsenbeek-Olthuis and Leo Noordegraaf conclude that Leyster, whose works appear by name only five times among the 702 inventories surveyed, was fortunate to be working at a time when the market for art was still expanding in Haarlem, and driven more by the rising middle classes than the established, well-to-do families. Her move to Amsterdam later in life (1636–1648) brought her a still greater market, though like Haarlem’s it too would turn bearish at the end.

In 1628 while still a teen-ager Leyster was praised by Haarlem’s town chronicler, Samuel Ampzing $$$ “who paints with a good $$$ Although Leyster’s teacher is unknown, Ampzing alludes to her in passing when he calls attention to the history painter and portraitist Frans Pietersz de Grebber. He notes that the latter’s son, Pieter, and daughter, Maria, studied with their father; and the authors of the catalog argue that since de Grebber was a popular teacher of Haarlem artists, he is likely to have taught Leyster. While nothing in Leyster’s pictures reflects de Grebber’s restrained, rather labored, manner, an artist’s earliest instruction need not have left the master’s stylistic mark on the pupil; consider, for example, the Haarlem landscapist Nicolaes Berchem’s reported but undetectable instruction of Pieter de Hooch, or Rembrandt’s initial apprenticeship with Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh.


No technical studies of Frans de Grebber’s art have been undertaken, but a valuable aspect of the present book is its systematic physical examination of six of Leyster’s signed paintings by Ella Hendriks and Karin Groen. Leyster’s priming techniques (e.g., an oil imprimatura layer over a flesh-colored, chalk ground on the canvases) are consistent with local Haarlem practices. And her practice of forgoing preliminary studies to sketch directly and spontaneously in oil on the primed canvas resembles Frans Hals’s technique. But there are also differences in the two painters’ approaches, for example, in their uses of under-painting. The conservators judiciously conclude that from physical data alone we cannot draw any firm conclusions whether Leyster apprenticed with Hals. The master’s influence, however, is conspicuous in her art.

Much has been made in the literature on Leyster of the fact that in 1633 she brought a complaint before the dean of the painters’ guild concerning a pupil who had left her studio to join that of Frans Hals. Given the querulous nature of many such archival documents, Ellen Broersen wisely cautions us from assuming on the evidence of Leyster’s demand that she be compensated for lost tuition fees that she had an exceptionally assertive personality. (The matter ended with punishments meted out to all parties; the board awarded Leyster only half the amount that she demanded and ordered that she and Hals both pay fines for failing to register their pupils.) What does emerge from this document is that by the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, probably about the time when she painted her confident-looking Self-Portrait, Leyster was already an independent painter with her own studio, two male pupils in addition to the one who left, and a servant who is mentioned as delivering the pirated pupil’s belongings. It must be said however that there is no documentary support for the assertion made by two of the authors that “this affair was injurious to Leyster’s reputation as a teacher.”

Most of Leyster’s paintings date from the years between 1629 and 1635, when she was a single woman in her early twenties. During the years immediately preceding her marriage to the painter Jan Miense Molenaer in 1636, at age twenty-seven, the two artists painted similar subjects—drinkers, “merry companies,” children at play—and even some of the same costumes in their genre scenes. Following her marriage, Leyster’s name continued to appear regularly in documents, but especially after 1654 she is mentioned only in connection with the family businesses she ran. Indeed, after 1635 she signed and dated only one work of art we know of, a delicately drawn silverpoint and water-color rendering on vellum of a rare tulip in 1643.

Leyster and Molenaer had five children and grew quite prosperous, acquiring in only three years during the 1650s two townhouses and a house in the country for the very substantial sum of 23,900 guilders (at a time when a guilder was worth approximately one day’s wage for a master carpenter). We ought to question the authors’ eminently unromantic suggestion that Leyster married Molenaer because of his prospects of financial and artistic success, but their suppositions about her later career are sensible. Following her marriage, Leyster may have initially continued to paint, but as her maternal, domestic, and managerial responsibilities multiplied she probably stopped, or at least greatly curtailed, her artistic activity.

Leyster seems to have supervised not only the sales of her own work and that of her husband but also their growing art dealing business; she managed the family’s various properties, and dealt with a number of legal matters. Molenaer’s trust in her is implicit, since he repeatedly gave her power to act on his behalf in legal matters. It was not unusual for Dutch artists, regardless of gender, to stop painting, especially when they assumed other, more lucrative careers or married well. Ferdinand Bol, Meindert Hobbema, and Aelbert Cuyp all apparently painted less after they became prosperous. But on the other hand not all women painters gave up their art when they married; the great flower painter Rachel Ruysch had ten children, but her dated paintings (1682–1747) suggest she painted throughout her life.

Yet the events in Leyster’s life seem to illustrate, indeed almost to caricature, the place of women described in seventeenth-century household manuals, and the literature on “ideal” womanhood. As Simon Schama and other historians have revealed in recent years, men could generally control a woman’s choices both professionally and personally, but the Dutch huisvrouw was also respected as the secular priestess of the home, the steward of domestic economy, and, often, as a shrewd trader and financial manager.4 It is true that Dutch married women could not conduct business without their husbands’ consent (a law overturned in the Netherlands only in 1957). And women were excluded from official public office, though many became powerful figures as regents of orphanages, old age homes, and hospitals. By the male chauvinist standards of the day, however, Dutch women enjoyed more freedom and privileges than other European women. As Joseph Shaw and other seventeenth-century foreign visitors correctly observed, this was in part because they were “better provided for by the laws of their country than in other nations.”5


Not only was wife-beating outlawed, but wronged women—the victims of desertion or philandering husbands—could demand legal assistance and the justice of church councils. The rich woman’s dowry could not be despoiled by her husband, and in marriages without children the widow had a right to her own property as well as half the common estate. A widow could also inherit her husband’s position in the guild. Women could enter into commercial contracts and notarize documents, and thus could take part in trade. For many foreigners, especially Frenchmen, Dutch women’s relative freedom not only to conduct business but also to speak openly and walk about unaccompanied seemed reckless. The gifted poet and artist Anna Maria van Schurman, who was admitted to the Utrecht guild in 1641, even courageously argued for a woman’s right to scholarship in her book The Learned Maid, or Whether a Maid May also be a Scholar (English edition, 1659). Her bold call for the intellectual rights of women naturally provoked widespread male opposition, but the tract was not suppressed as it might have been outside the Dutch Republic.

Els Kloek’s essay in the present book underscores the docile and industrious ideal of women’s behavior that emerges from the didactic literature of such moralizing contemporaries as “Vader” Cats, who celebrated the huisvrouw’s conventional concern with kinder, keuken en kerk (children, kitchen, and church), and from the more satirical literature which mocked indolent wives and maid servants. Kloek writes that many working women were able to overcome the obstacles to their having jobs; and her account of Haarlem’s St. Luke’s Guild reveals no conscious policy of excluding women from the male dominated trades. But she concludes that most women usually assumed traditionally female occupations and remained at best marginal figures in the guilds, their presence scarcely giving rise to comment.

During the seventeenth century, there were perhaps several dozen women painters in Holland, while male artists surely numbered more than one thousand. (The eighteenth-century Dutch historian Arnold Houbraken felt he had to refer to both female and male artists in the title of his lexicon of Dutch painters.)6 Many of these women joined the local guild, but this did not mean that they were amateurs or dilettantes. The highly accomplished still life painters Maria van Oosterwijck (1630–1693) and Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) are not known to have been painters’ guild members but, as Kloek reminds us, Ruysch became court painter to the Elector Palatine and, according to Houbraken, Oosterwijck could claim among her noble patrons Louis XIV, Emperor Leopold I, and the King of Poland. Only the conspicuous artistic quality of her work could have accounted for such distinguished patronage.

Many of Leyster’s paintings passed (in some cases for more than two centuries) as the work of Frans Hals, now acknowledged, with Rembrandt and Vermeer, as among the greatest Dutch painters. As Hofrichter explains in her essay “The Eclipse of a Leading Star,” Leyster was not mentioned by scholars of Dutch art until the 1890s. Her name even disappeared from the salesrooms and from prints executed after her art until a lawsuit in 1892 challenged the attribution to Hals of her Carousing Couple, now in the Louvre. The following year, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot assembled a group of pictures which, like the Louvre’s painting, bore Leyster’s monogram, and published these in an article on the artist, thus initiating Leyster’s resurrection and providing the rather arbitrary year for the recent Leyster centennial show.7

But it is not so odd that Leyster’s tiny oeuvre was lost. Vermeer’s small production (now estimated at only about thirty-two paintings) was also largely forgotten until the critic ThoréBürger, a friend of the Impressionists, revived his memory in the second half of the nineteenth century. Still, whenever Vermeer’s art appeared in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century inventories and salesrooms, as it occasionally did, it was well regarded. A better comparison can be made with the brilliant painter Jan Jansz den Uyl, whose work, signed with his mark, a small owl (uyl), was entirely absorbed into those of other still life painters like W.C. Heda and Pieter Claesz until 1940, when a signed and marked painting emerged and was properly identified. Leyster’s rediscovery was championed by the women’s movement early in this century when she was welcomed into a famous, though poorly documented, women’s art exhibition held in 1908. 8 A useful dissertation on her by Juliane Harms followed, the results of which were published in a series of articles in Oud-Holland in 1927. The following year, in a remarkably hysterical flight of misogynist fancy, Robert Dangers cast Leyster as Rembrandt’s lover.9 Hofrichter’s sensible piece here is a welcome antidote not only to Dangers but also to the polemics of Germaine Greer’s Obstacle Race (1979), which not only blamed the neglect of women artists on male art historians but also inaccurately suggested that the restoration of Leyster’s “disappearing oeuvre” would have a “catastrophic” effect on the art market and museums.

The paintings which were selected for the Worcester exhibition, including the earliest dated painting of 1629, Serenade, attest to an admiration for Frans Hals’s loaded brush as well as to a personal flair for nocturnal effects. The works formed a coherent stylistic group, and all seemed to be by her with the possible exception of the Girl with a Straw Hat from the Fondation Rau, which may be the work of another gifted but anonymous follower of Hals. Although the book deriving from the exhibition is not a proper catalog raisonné, it addresses questions of attribution and examines the topical issue of the methodology of connoisseurship by including in the catalog five rather randomly selected paintings formerly attributed to Leyster. As in previous exhibition catalogs on the Le Nains, Caravaggio, and, most recently, Rembrandt, this self-consciously didactic exercise in stylistic discernment only serves to confuse matters; it would have been better to address what the authors regard as the quintessential qualities of this artist.

Koos Levy-van Halm’s supposition that Leyster may have spent an extended period as an advanced apprentice to Frans Hals and possibly also worked with Dirck is plausible stylistically. The show also displayed the newly cleaned Last Drop from the Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which includes between the two drunken and dissipated revelers the skeleton that had been painted out, presumably at the request of a squeamish former owner. It must be said however that with the exceptions of the three fine paintings by Frans Hals, a handful of paintings by Molenaer, and Dirck Hals’s charming pendants of children, the paintings on view in Worcester did not show other Haarlem artists to advantage. This is all the more regrettable when one considers that, unlike Leyster, who now has enjoyed two substantial books during the last five years, equally deserving artists like Molenaer and Dirck Hals have never been the subject of a published monograph. However the book offers excellent biographies (compiled by Irene van Thiel-Stroman) as well as hitherto unpublished photographs of other works by Haarlem artists.

Fully three quarters of the book is devoted to the entries by Cynthia Kortenhorst-von Bogendorf Ruprath, which may be commended, for example, for their subtle identifications of the costumes and musical instruments in Dutch pictures. But the entries also give excessive attention to the possible iconography of the paintings. Like the doctor who orders a battery of tests to minimize his liability, the authors of many recent studies of Dutch paintings seem to feel obliged to undertake an encyclopedic review of a motif’s possible meanings and associations, only to conclude that the artist included it for some other reason. As so often in Dutch genre paintings it is difficult to determine to what degree an artist intended to introduce moral messages into common social themes. Ought we, for example, to deduce a moral lesson on Temptation and Education from Leyster’s juxtaposition of wind and string instruments in the Lute Player?

Are the authors correct, moreover, in concluding that there is nothing “gender-specific” about Leyster’s perspective as an artist? Certainly her merry drinkers, revelers, tric-trac players, and street entertainers were all members of a time-honored cast of characters. Even her paintings of children playing and of other domestic themes are not an exclusively female concern, since Dirck Hals seems to have preceded her in painting mothers and children and household subjects. Leyster’s beautiful little painting now in The Hague of a seamstress by lamplight with a man offering her a handful of coins has been called The Proposition;10 however more recent studies have convincingly observed that the money proffered may not be for sex but could merely be a token of courtship.11 Prints by Gillis van Breen (after E. van de Velde) and Salomon Saverij (after Pieter Quast) depict men courting women with a handful of treasure or a “trouwpenning”—a coin of betrothal. However in these images by male artists the women pay full attention to the men’s blandishments. Whether the man in the Hague painting is importunate and venal or merely a crudely self-advertising suitor, the women’s ability to ignore his attentions and continue her needlework requires, I suggest, a woman’s perspective. Particularly in the seventeenth century it would not have occurred to a man that a woman might have had the presence of mind and stamina simply to ignore him.

This Issue

February 17, 1994