Judith Leyster’s Self-Portrait exudes self-confidence in her abilities, and it has become one of the National Gallery of Art’s most popular Dutch paintings. Leyster has depicted herself at her easel, briefly interrupting work on a painting of a violin player to interact with the viewer. The momentary quality of the portrait and the vigorous brushwork echo the work of Frans Hals (c. 1582/1583–1666), Haarlem’s most celebrated portrait painter and Leyster’s colleague. By juxtaposing her hand holding a brush with the hand and bow of the violin player, Leyster cleverly compares the art of creating ephemeral music with the art of creating timeless paintings. She holds the tools of her trade—a palette, a cloth, and no fewer than eighteen brushes. In reality she would not have worn the elegant dress and lace-trimmed collar while at work in her studio.
Leyster entered into the Saint Luke’s Guild of Haarlem as an independent master in 1633. As a master in her own right, a rarity for a female artist at the time, Leyster established her own workshop and had paying students. Five years earlier, her proficiency and talent had already drawn public praise. A chronicler of Haarlem described Leyster, then only nineteen years old, as a painter of "good and keen insight." In the late 1640s, another city historian wrote that among the many women experienced in the field of painting, "one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called ‘the true leading star’ in art." The compliment cleverly alludes to the artist’s family name, which means "lodestar." The artist herself incorporated a star in her professional signature, the monogram JL*. Following her marriage to fellow Haarlem artist Jan Miense Molenaer in 1636, Leyster stopped producing art in her own name but probably continued to paint in collaboration with, and in the workshop of, her husband.
As she turns from her painting of a violin player and gazes smilingly out at the viewer, Judith Leyster manages to assert, in the most offhanded way, that she has mastered a profession traditionally viewed as a masculine domain. Although women drew and painted as amateurs, a professional woman painter was a rarity in Holland in the seventeenth century. Leyster was quite a celebrity even before she painted this self-portrait in about 1630. Her proficiency, even at the tender age of nineteen, had been so remarkable that in 1628 Samuel Ampzing singled her out for praise in his Beschryvinge ende lof der stad Haerlem in Holland some five years before she appears to have become the first woman ever to be admitted as a master in the Haarlem Saint Luke’s Guild.
Samuel Ampzing, Beschrijvinge ende lof der stad Haerlem in Holland (Haarlem, 1628), 370, praises Leyster’s bold hand and mind in the context of a discussion of the De Grebber family, probably because Frans de Grebber’s daughter Maria (c. 1602–1680) was also a painter. The rarity of women artists is implicit in Ampzing’s rhetorical question concerning Maria: “Who ever saw a painting made by the hand of a daughter?” (“Wie sag oyt schilderij van eene dochtershand?”)
Theodorus Schrevelius, Harlemias, ofte, de eerst stichtinghe der stad Haarlem (Haarlem, 1648), 384–385. “Daer zyn ook veel Vrouwen gheweest in de Schilder-konst wel ervaren I die voornamelyck by onse tijdt noch vermaert zijn / die met de mans haer soude konnen versetten in de mael-konst / van welcke ceo insonderheydt uytmunt, JUDITH LEISTER, weleer genaemt / de rechte l..eyster inde konst.” The English translation has been taken from Frima Fox Hofrichter, Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland’s Golden Age (Doornspijk, 1989), 83. The reference to “the true leading star” is a pun on Leyster’s name; see Frima Fox Hofrichter, Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland’s Golden Age (Doornspijk, 1989), 13.
The young artist sits in a remarkably casual manner, with her right arm resting on the back of her chair. As she looks out at the viewer with one hand holding a brush and the other her palette, a large bundle of brushes, and a white painter’s cloth, it appears as though she has just been interrupted from her work. Indeed, Leyster has purposely left the figure of the violin player on the canvas in an unfinished state. Nevertheless, she is dressed in quite formal attire, inappropriate for an artist busy working. One could hardly imagine her painting while wearing such a firmly starched, broad, lace-trimmed collar.
The inconsistencies can be explained in the dichotomy that existed between the traditional iconography for artists’ self-portraits and the relatively new informal concept of portraiture that had developed in Haarlem in the 1620s through the influence of
Illustrated in Hans Joachim Raupp, Untersuchungen zu Künstlerbildnis und Künstlerdarstellung in den Niederlanden im 17. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim, 1984), 390, repro. 20.
Cesare Ripa, Iconologia of uytbeeldingen des verstands, trans. Dirck Pietersz Pers (Amsterdam, 1644), 259. “Konstigh en eedel wort hy gekleet, om dat de konst door haer selven eedel is, die men oock de tweede Natuyre kan heeten.” For a discussion of this type of self-portraiture, see Hans Joachim Raupp, Untersuchungen zu Künstlerbildnis und Künstlerdarstellung in den Niederlanden im 17. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim, 1984), 36–38.
See, for example, Hals’ Isaac Abrabamsz. Massa, 1626, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, illustrated in Seymour Slive, Frans Hals, 3 vols. (London, 1970–1974), 2: pl. 64. Although the National Gallery of Art work was attributed to Judith Leyster in 1926, many scholars gave it to Frans Hals during the 1930s (see Exhibition History and Bibliography).
The exact date of this self-portrait is not known. Hofrichter has argued that Leyster executed it as a presentation piece at the time of her entry into the Haarlem Saint Luke’s Guild in 1633. The new regulations, which were established in 1631, required that each new master present to the guild “a painting two feet large” as testimony of skill.
Frima Fox Hofrichter, “Judith Leyster’s ‘Self-Portrait’: ‘Ut Pictura Poesis,’” in Essays in Northern European Art Presented to Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann on His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Anne-Marie Logan (Doornspijk, 1983), 106–109. For the guild regulations, see Ed Taverne, “Salomon de Bray and the Reorganization of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke in 1631,” Simiolus 6 (1972–1973): 52.
A similar style collar is seen in family portraits of the late 1620s, such as Pieter de Grebber’s Family Portrait at a Meal, 1625 (Stedelijk Museum, Alkmaar); Paulus Bor’s Portrait of the Family Van Vanevelt, 1628 (Sint Pietersen Blokland Gasthuis, Amersfoort); and Andries van Bochoven’s The Artist and His Family, 1629 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht). These paintings are illustrated in Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Haarlem, 1986), nos. 72, 74, 75.
For example, Young Flute Player; see Frima Fox Hofrichter, Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland’s Golden Age (Doornspijk, 1989), no. 38.
Leyster did not initially plan to paint the violin player on the canvas, but rather a portrait of a woman, whose face is visible in an infrared photograph and with
A photographic or digital image analysis method which captures the absorption/emission characteristics of reflected infrared radiation. The absorption of infrared wavelengths varies for different pigments, so the resultant image can help distinguish the pigments that have been used in the painting or underdrawing.
See, for example, Catharina van Hemessen’s Self-Portrait of 1548 in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Basel; illustrated in Hans Joachim Raupp, Untersuchungen zu Künstlerbildnis und Künstlerdarstellung in den Niederlanden im 17. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim, 1984), 390, repro. 20.
As suggested by Frima Fox Hofrichter, “Judith Leyster’s ‘Self-Portrait’: ‘Ut Pictura Poesis,’” in Essays in Northern European Art Presented to Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann on His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Anne-Marie Logan (Doornspijk, 1983), 107.
For a discussion of the symbolic implications of the violin player, see Hans Joachim Raupp, Untersuchungen zu Künstlerbildnis und Künstlerdarstellung in den Niederlanden im 17. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim, 1984), 346–347.
This painting, which is not signed, was long attributed to Frans Hals, in large part because Leyster’s own artistic personality was only rediscovered in 1893.
See Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, “Judith Leyster,” Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen 14 (1893): 190–198, 232.
Gerrit David Gratama, “Het portret van Judith Leyster door Frans Hals,” Oud-Holland 47 (1930): 75.
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
Possibly the painting identified as a painting by Frans Hals depicting his daughter at the easel that appeared in four London sales between 1810 and 1812. E.M. Grainger, Hastings, Sussex; Mrs. Granger, Bexhil-on-Sea, East Sussex; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 16 April 1926, no. 115); purchased by E. Smith, probably for a London dealer. private collection, New York, in 1928. (Ehrich Galleries, New York); purchased 9 May 1929 by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C.; gift 1949 to NGA.
- A Century of Progress Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, 1933, no. 64, as by Frans Hals.
- Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, John Herron Art Museum, Indianapolis, 1937, no. 22, as by Frans Hals.
- Frans Hals Tentoonstelling ter gelegenheid van het 75-jarig bestaan van het gemeentelijk Museum te Haarlem, Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem, 1937, no. 9, repro., as by Frans Hals.
- Paintings by Frans Hals: Exhibition for the Benefit of New York University, Schaeffer Galleries, Inc., New York, 1937, no. 3, as by Frans Hals.
- People at Work: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, Hofstra Museum, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, 1988, no. 11.
- Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World, Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, 1993, no. 7, repro.
- Judith Leyster: "Leading Star," National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., 1993-1994, brochure, color repro.
- Elck zijn waerom: Vrouwelijke kunstenaars in België en Nederland, 1500-1950 [As You Will: Women Artists in the Netherlands and Belgium, 1500-1950], Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp; Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnhem, 1999-2000, no. 34.
- Face to Face: Portraits from Five Centuries, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, 2001-2002, no. 35, repro.
- Jan Miense Molenaer: Painter of the Dutch Golden Age, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Indianapolis Museum of Art (Columbus Gallery); Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, 2002-2003, fig. 8 (shown only in Raleigh).
- Loan to display with permanent collection, National Gallery, London, 2003-2004.
- Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary, National Portrait Gallery, London; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2005-2006, no. 11, repro.
- Judith Leyster, 1609-1660 [Judith Leyster's 400th Anniversary], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, 2009-2010, unnumbered brochure, cover repro.
- Dutch Self-Portraits -- Selfies of the Golden Age, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, 2015-2016, no. 3, repro.
The support, a plain-woven fabric with numerous slubs and weave imperfections, has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed. A large horizontal rectangle of original canvas is missing from the bottom left in an area corresponding to the red skirt, and has been replaced with a fine-weight, tightly woven fabric insert. The X-radiographs show cusping along all edges except the insert, which is also bereft of original paint or ground layers.
A smooth, thin, white ground layer was applied overall and followed by a gray brown imprimatura layer. Paint handling varies from fluid paint applied in loose liquid strokes in the black peplum to thicker pastes blended wet-into-wet in the flesh tones. White cuffs were applied wet-over-dry above the thinly scumbled purple sleeves, and red glazes were laid over opaque pink underpaint in the original passages of the red skirt.
An infrared photograph and infrared reflectography at 1.1 to 1.4 microns reveal a major change in the easel painting, which originally showed a woman’s head, with parted lips, turned slightly to the left, which is now partially visible as a pentimento. With the exception of the loss in the lower left, actual paint losses are few: small losses in the top at center and in the proper left cheek. The paint surface, however, is in relatively poor condition, with minute pitting throughout of the type caused by superheating during a lining procedure. This is exacerbated by moderate abrasion overall, and flattening. The unfinished violin player on the easel is heavily abraded.
The painting was treated in 1992 to remove discolored varnish layers and old inpainting. The later insert was retained.
 Infrared reflectography was performed with a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with a J astronomy filter.
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