Dutch Artist Gets Her Due After 400 Years

Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:05pm

After the Dutch artist Judith Leyster died in 1660, her work — and her existence — was largely forgotten.

But now the National Gallery of Art is bringing Leyster back to life in its Dutch galleries, by displaying 10 of her works as part of an exhibit to honor her 400th birthday.

This small but lovely collection housed in two rooms offers insight into Leyster’s fascination with music and sensuality.

It wasn’t until 1893, nearly 250 years after her death, that Leyster was first identified as the artist of a painting. Researchers determined the work was by Leyster when an unidentified art historian recognized her signature monogram, “JL— followed by a star, referring in part to her last name: Leyster. Once this monogram was connected to Leyster, a string of corrected attributions followed, and the one original work evolved into the collection of 20 paintings we know of today.

Frima Hofrichter, professor of art history and design at the Pratt Institute, wrote for the exhibition, “Leyster was held in high esteem by her peers; however, her name vanished from the annals of art history after her death in 1660, and her existence as an artist was totally forgotten.— Some say this could be due to her marriage and her transition from artist to mother and wife. At this point Leyster also stopped using her original name, complicating matters even further. Although pieces done by Leyster during her marriage have been mentioned in texts from that period, none have yet been found or identified.

The works featured in this exhibition range from still-lifes to portraits and are composed on small panels and mid-sized canvasses. Leyster’s technical skills as an artist are widely praised by experts and enthusiasts. Her use of light and shadows has led many to believe that she was influenced by Italian artists such as Caravaggio, who is known for his use of light-dark contrasts.

Arthur Wheelock Jr., curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery, emphasized her skill and technique while admiring “The Last Drop,— one of the paintings on display. “The way she uses light is particularly striking,— he said, “She’s really pushing these [lighting] effects, and you can see the freedom of the brush strokes.—

One of the gallery’s most prized possessions is a self-portrait, possibly done by Leyster to gain membership into the organization of professional artists known as the Guild of Saint Luke of Harlem in 1633. It shows the artist holding a brush and palette and leaning back in her chair to reveal an unfinished work on an easel. Wheelock says this piece is clearly a presentation piece because of the formal dress, not typical of a painter at work. This painting also highlights the alleged influence of Frans Hals, a contemporary of Leyster. Her relaxed and casual pose are typical of his portraits and genre pieces.

A small selection of paintings by Hals, along with a few pieces by Leyster’s husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, are being displayed in the same rooms as Leyster’s. Although these other paintings are useful in illustrating what kind of artistic and social atmosphere influenced Leyster, Wheelock said he worries about possible comparisons between artists. “She has her own personality, and that’s the danger of putting pieces by Hals in there.—

Wheelock is concerned that viewers will judge Leyster’s work as inferior to that of Hals and not realize the differences are due to technical preferences, not artistic talent. Also included in the exhibition are instruments and music books from the 17th century that the artists would have been using for their paintings at the time.

Even when compared to works by Hals, Leyster’s pieces hold their own in this small space and add a breath of fresh air to the Dutch galleries overall.

The exhibition will open Sunday and run in the Gallery’s West Building through Nov. 29.