Judith Leyster
painter from the Northern Netherlands



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Judith Leyster
painter from the Northern Netherlands
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cschuster's picture

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Renowned for her paintings celebrating the happy hour and selfie, Judith Leyster would probably be a fun bestie.

Although, she may have been too scary to party with since some of those pictures of drunken revelry involve eels and prostitution (and no, it's not eel prostitution you prudes).

Born in Haarlem and stayed Low Country for life. The last name comes from the family brewery. Put her youth in a brewery to good use by making a career out of genre paintings telling the stories of drunks and musicians somewhere between their first round and glazing over into a dribbling blackout. 17th century Haarlem was a great time and place to be a painter. Artists could live in MTV Cribs-style luxury, with people at every social strata trying to get rich or buy art trying. Farmer's barns would be flush with originals we now trek across the globe to see in museums and posh galleries. In a portrait by her husband, Judith is seen plucking a cittern (a small guitar-ish number somewhere between a mandolin and a ukulele) surrounded by such instagram-able accessories as a wall map of Italy, a dog, and half-eaten food. Because nothing's cooler than geography and taking out the trash.

She was an independent working artist by age 18 and achieved local fame by age 19 and the first woman admitted to the Saint Luke's Guild in Haarlem, with only one other admitted by the end of the 17th century. Had three students by age 26. She married fellow artist Jan Miense Molenaer later in her 26th year. Judith's career after marriage produced few works, her ribald party portraits basically supplanted by middling still lifes. This shift was likely to avoid competing with Molenaer's artistic output, as they both peddled in ragers. Today, the marriage is blamed for stunting Leyster's still developing artistic style from flourishing into a singular genius (sorry Judith, but #realtalk). 

Judith was basically forgotten shortly after death. Excepting some pieces including her renowned self-portrait, much of her work was attributed to famed Dutch painter -- and possibly Judith's teacher -- Frans Hals. In 1893, the Louvre discovered its newly acquired The Happy Couple had a fake Frans Hals signature. They should have known something was wrong since there was a handwritten note under the Hals signature that read, "Don't bother looking under here." Underneath the fake signature, like one biker tattoo crudely inked over another, was Judith's initials ligatured by a distinct five pointed star. Legend has it, if a prostitute holds an eel over the star on Judith Leyster signature, a light points you to the nearest dive bar. Go ahead and try it, any decent museum docent will know what you're doing.




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Here is what Wikipedia says about Judith Leyster

Judith Jans Leyster (also Leijster) (c. July 28, 1609– February 10, 1660) was a Dutch Golden Age painter. She painted genre works, portraits and still lifes. Although her work was highly regarded by her contemporaries, Leyster and her work became almost forgotten after her death. Her entire oeuvre was attributed to Frans Hals or to her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, until 1893.


Leyster was born in Haarlem, the eighth child of Jan Willemsz Leyster, a local brewer and clothmaker. While the details of her training are uncertain, she was mentioned in a Dutch book by Samuel Ampzing titled Beschrijvinge ende lof der stadt Haerlem (1928).

Some scholars speculate that Leyster pursued a career in painting to help support her family after her father's bankruptcy. She may have learned painting from Frans Pietersz de Grebber, who was running a respected workshop in Haarlem in the 1620s. During this time her family moved to the province of Utrecht, and she may have come into contact with some of the Utrecht Caravaggisti.

Her first known signed work is dated 1629. By 1633, she was a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. There is some debate as to who was the first woman registered by the Guild, with some sources saying it was Leyster in 1633 and others saying it was Sara van Baalbergen in 1631. Dozens of other female artists may have been admitted to the Guild of St. Luke during the 17th century; however, the medium in which they worked was often not listed–at this time artists working in embroidery, pottery painting, metal and wood were included in guilds– or they were included for continuing the work of their deceased husbands.

Leyster's Self-Portrait, c. 1633 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), has been speculated to have been her presentation piece to the Guild. This work marks a historical shift from the rigidity of earlier women's self-portraits in favor of a more relaxed, dynamic pose. It is very relaxed by the standards of other Dutch portrait and comparable mainly to some by Frans Hals; although it seems unlikely that she wore such formal clothes when painting in oils, especially the very wide lace collar.

Within two years of entering the Guild, Leyster had taken on three male apprentices. Records show that Leyster sued Frans Hals for accepting a student who left her workshop for his without first obtaining the Guild's permission. The student's mother paid Leyster four guilders in punitive damages, only half of what Leyster asked for, and Hals settled his part of the lawsuit by paying a three-guilder fine rather than return the apprentice. Leyster herself was fined for not having registered the apprentice with the Guild. Following her lawsuit with Frans Hals, Leyster's paintings received greater recognition.

In 1636, Leyster married Jan Miense Molenaer, a more prolific artist than herself who worked on similar subjects. In hopes of better economic prospects, the couple moved to Amsterdam where Molenaer already had clients. They remained there for eleven years before returning to Heemstede in the Haarlem area. There they shared a studio in a small house located in the present-day Groenendaal Park. Leyster and Molenaer had five children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.

Most of Leyster's dated works antedate her marriage and are dated between 1629 and 1635. There are few known pieces by her painted after 1635: two illustrations in a book about tulips from 1643, a portrait from 1652, and a still life from 1654 that was discovered in a private collection in the 21st century. Leyster may have worked collaboratively with her husband as well. She died in 1660, aged 50. She was buried at a farm just outside of Haarlem, and her artwork not on display or recognized as hers for close to 200 years. The fact that the inventory of her estate attributed many of the paintings to "the wife of Molenaer", not to Judith Leyster, may have contributed to the misattribution of her work to her husband.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Judith Leyster.

Comments (6)




Respect where respect is due am I right

pogo agogo

I love Judith Leyster! Amazing how a man is automatically assumed to be the painter oh how times have changed ... NOT


idk how she painted with that thing around her neck

Lorna Wright

Wonderful article! Thank you!


'if a prostitute holds an eel over the star on Judith Leyster signature, a light points you to the nearest dive bar'. Words to live by.