Although now known as one of the famous painters of the 17th century, the Dutch painter Judith Leyster (1609-1660) virtually disappeared from the history of painting after her death.

Over 200 years later in 1893, the Louvre museum unearthed Leyster’s unique monogram under the fabricated signature of “Frans Hals”, whom many believe to have been her teacher. This discovery stimulated research and curiosity about Leyster paintings.  The research differentiated her oeuvre from that of Frans Hals (c. 1581-1666) and secured Judith Leyster a permanent spot in the history of painting.

Although no records prove that Leyster formally studied with Hals, his influence, as well as that of Frans’ brother, Dirck Hals (1591-1656), is stylistically apparent in her artwork.  If she did apprentice in Hals’ studio, it would have been

Judith Leyster,  Self-Portrait.  Oil on canvas, ca. 1630.  29 3/8″ by 25 5/8″.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

prior to 1629, when at only 20, she began signing and dating her paintings.  By 1633, the ground-breaking Leyster was the first female artist admitted to the Guild of St. Luke of Haarlem, the painter’s guild.  According to its charter, each incoming artist was to present an art painting when inducted as a “master”.  These paintings, which became known as “master pieces”, were roughly the same measurements as Leyster’s Self Portrait; it’s not certain, however, that this was her guild submission.

Self-Portrait flaunts Leyster’s prowess as a genre painter and portrait painter. Like her male contemporaries, Leyster painted musical subjects and genre paintings (as well as tavern scenes). Why is her self-portait in the studio when she isn’t dressed to paint? Artists in 17th century Europe sought to be treated as professionals instead of mere craftspeople.  In her self-portrait, therefore, Leyster dons the clothing of the class to which she aspires, the upper class. Her lavish clothing and the elegant chair in which she sits also convey her success in portraiture and genre scenes.

In The Proposition from 1631, Leyster again uses a monochromatic background to accentuate the figures.  And again, the Caravaggesque tradition is apparent with the dramatic lighting from a single source, the figures looming in the immediate foreground, and the anonymous background, suggesting this scene could occur anywhere.

Judith Leyster.  The Proposition, 1631.  Oil on canvas, 11 11/16″ by 9 1/2″.  Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Perhaps it could. A modestly-attired young woman remains riveted by her embroidery as an elder man propositions her with a fistful of coins.

The affront to the girl’s virtue – and to prevailing religious beliefs condemning premarital sexual relations – is brilliantly captured by Leyster when she was only 22 years old.  The tension and power of this art painting render Judith Leyster, along with Artemisia Gentileschi, among the most famous painters of the 17th century.