The fate of Judith Leyster and her work is a perfect example of toxic gender bias and inequality in art history. Also, we can learn that fools are everywhere.
She was one of the first women accepted to the Guild of St. Luke in Haarlem. At that time indisputable star among artists in Haarlem was Frans Hals, genius portraitist and genre painter, famous for his loose brushwork.
Since the 1630s, their life paths intertwined in different ways. Some art historians claim that Leyster was an apprentice of Hals and started her career in his workshop. There is no material evidence of such a relationship, though.
Certainly, they knew each other, both being members of the same circle of artists in Haarlem. Judith had caused quite a stir with her introductory piece to the guild, at the age of 24. It was her self-portrait, featuring a bold and independent person she was back then.
The shooting star
Hals has had to spot her. If he was a star, Judith could be a meteor – raising to local fame at a very young age and breaking strict gender rules and roles in 17th-century Dutch society.
Oddly enough, her maiden name translates from Dutch as ‘lodestar’. Even her artistic signature contained the symbol of a shooting star! It’s beautiful.
Leyster must have been very self-confident. One time she even has not hesitated to bring forward a case against her old master. Their relations had gone sour when Hals allegedly poached one of her apprentices.
The star shot down
She won the case back then but Frans took the cruel revenge from beyond the grave. After the deaths of both artists shameless, money-hungry and conniving art dealers attributed most of Leyster’s paintings and art prints to Hals.
She fell into oblivion, while his art was experiencing a boom. Her signature has been literally erased from the paintings, sometimes painted over, sometimes clumsily modified to FH monogram. Even her self-portrait has been credited to Hals!
A beautiful star just disappeared from the art world.
The truth about the female painter from Haarlem started to bite only in the late 19th century. In 1893 the Louvre employees found Leyster’s monogram under the fabricated signature of Hals. The scandal broke. More and more fabrications have been discovered.
The art market is a men’s world. Bollocks to that! Leyster’s case is tangible evidence of discrimination out of sheer stupidity, junk expertise and amateurish bias. And greed. Since the 17th century until now.
Art lovers have lost Judith way before her death. Let me point out some key events which forced her to change the career path and as a consequence made her fall into obscurity.
Leyster among fools
At the age of 26, she married fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer. Since then she painted less and less frequently, possibly in favour of running a family household and bringing up five children.
During her artistic career, there was no shortage of discouraging opinions; one dumb critic said that her works show ‘weakness of the feminine hand’. Yep, I can only imagine the escalation after her spat with beloved Hals.
Even after the discovery of dealers’ scam with attribution of her work to Hals Judith did not immediately get the recognition she deserved. At first, experts dismissed her as an imitator or follower of the Dutch master. Playing dumb and dumber continued.
Reattribution of her works to Frans Hals is telling enough, isn’t it? Hals is reckoned the third great master of Golden Dutch Age, along with Rembrandt and Vermeer. What does it tell about Leyster’s ability, talent and prowess in the field of painting?
Apparently, it tells nothing whatsoever…
It took another 100 years to finally restore Judith to her rightful place in art history. It is worth noting that such appreciation possibly would not happen without feminist scholars. Yep, she needed the feminist revolution!
Personally, I love her self-portrait. She is depicting herself as buoyant, vibrant young woman who had a whole life ahead of her. And look where the tip of the brush is aiming! This can’t be a coincidence, can it?
However, as for myself, the special place is reserved for her Boy Playing the Flute. I have it hanged as an art print in my feminist sanctuary (meaning: bedroom) and it is just impeccable.
As far as I can say, Leyster loved ochre and greys, the earthy colours, and in this instance, they play flawlessly. A true masterpiece.