Dames Done Wrong: Judith Leyster

Average: 5 (1 vote)

If you think modern artists were the only dames done wrong, then you’ve got another thing coming. It’s not just a modern phenomenon. Women artists have been getting the shaft since ancient Greece, and Judith Leyster was one such dame. After scholars incorrectly attributed her work to her male contemporary Frans Hals for years, Judith is finally recognized for the beauty and comedy that she brought to the Dutch Golden Age.

History had pretty much forgotten Judith Leyster until 1893, when the Louvre acquired a painting called The Happy Couple. For decades, scholars believed that Hals had painted the work. When the museum’s staff examined the painting upon their purchase, curators were shocked to see that it bore Leyster’s signatorial star, which is a reference to her last name. Her father owned a brewery called the leyster, which is Dutch for lodestar.


Somehow, I don’t think this “misunderstanding” would’ve surprised Judith. People during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Netherlands didn’t care much for the heroic nudes and classical stories of artists like Nicolas Poussin. Instead, they liked art of everyday life, and this shift in taste actually helped women. Because they were not allowed to draw from live models, many Dutch, female artists were forced to stick with these kinds of fashionable, domestic subjects. But despite their success, only a few names ring a bell today.

Good old Judith knew that being a woman was ultimately a disadvantage, so she fought even harder than the boys did. In 1629, she began studying under Frans Hals, who taught her everything he knew about painting bawdy scenes of drunken celebrations. Judith continued to refine this concept over her career. In just a few years, she joined the Painters’ Guild and even trained three male students of her own. Hals eventually undermined her by stealing one of her assistants, but Leyster took his butt to court. While the settlement demanded that Hals pay a fine, he ultimately kept the assistant.

Although she enjoyed an illustrious career, it slowed dramatically when she had children, and the Dutch had all but forgotten her by the time she died. To make matters worse, the few artworks that did exist were often misattributed.


A 2009 retrospective at the National Gallery of Art only had ten paintings, so when a new painting was discovered less than a decade later, it was a pretty big deal.

In 2017, a new Leyster surfaced during the appraisal of an English country estate. The painting, which sold for over a half a million dollars, comes from her elusive, later years and shows an older, self-assured woman, both painter and matriarch.


It sure wasn’t easy to be a woman during this time, but ladies like Judith Leyster and Angelica Kauffman held it down for us.

Amanda Lampel

Sr. Contributor

Comments (1)