A Singular Star in the Baroque Firmament
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 3, 2009
We have no record of Judith Leyster hiring a publicist, so let's add "savvy self-promoter" to the baroque painter's list of talents -- talents that included portraiture, genre scenes and still life.
Evidence of Leyster's spin-doctoring hangs in the Dutch Cabinet Galleries at the National Gallery of Art, where the Haarlem-born artist's vivacious self-portrait from around 1632 forms the centerpiece of a small but robust exhibition honoring her 400th birthday.
Likely painted to gain admission into the Haarlem painters' guild, that self-portrait is as calculated as a Vanity Fair photo shoot. In it, Leyster paints herself at the easel wearing the finest of finery. A lace collar rings her neck like a dinner plate and bars her own view to the palette she holds. On her imaginary easel she's painted a canvas of the kind she was famous for -- a mirthful fiddler in the midst of entertainments. Like the pictures that accompany glossy magazine features, the work is meant to highlight talent and status.
Leyster's PR must have worked. The Guild of Saint Luke admitted her in 1633.
Hers was a robust if short career. Her best-known works were made in the decade beginning around 1630. Today there are only 35 works attributed to her. The National Gallery assembles nearly a third of them for the current show.
Curators Arthur Wheelock and Frima Fox Hofrichter augment 10 Leysters with paintings by two important men in the artist's life. One is virtuoso portraitist Frans Hals, believed by many art historians to be her teacher (though nobody has found the documentation to prove it). The other is her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, an adequate painter whose style was markedly less spirited than his wife's. The two-room show is rounded out with engravings and a handful of centuries-old musical instruments, several of which appear in these paintings (many of the works made in the Dutch Republic around this time involved aural pleasures).
Leyster started strong. What with that self-portrait and her guild membership, she was able to set up a workshop and take on students. Contemporary critics singled her out for praise. They called her a "leading star," a pun on her surname, which means something close to "lodestar" or "comet."
Then, in 1636, Leyster married fellow painter Molenaer. Her name changed and so did her role. Now assisting with her husband's painting and art-dealing business, Leyster became a mother and her production, inevitably, declined. It's the familiar story of a woman's imperfect options.
Wheelock and Hofrichter do a nice job of contextualizing Leyster's pictures. They hang her self-portrait adjacent to the very painting that sits on the self-portrait's imaginary easel. We do a double take when we see the same jolly fiddler in both pictures.
For many of these "Merry Company" scenes of music, gambling and carousing, Leyster created dramatic effects with light and shadow. Such chiaroscuro filtered north from Rome, where Caravaggio worked, and would influence a generation of Northern Europeans. But while Caravaggio's cardsharps are milky-skinned youth pursing rose-petal lips, Leyster's revelers are bawdier, drunker and likely the loudest folks at the party.
Perhaps our best measure of Leyster comes when viewing her against her husband. Represented by three pictures here, he sets her in a flattering light.
Sure, Molenaer was adept. But he tended toward static composition. In a picture called "The Duet," Molenaer paints himself with his new spouse. Leyster looks the dutiful housewife rather than the mischievous sprite of her own self-portrait. The two play instruments (a metaphor for romantic harmony) but the pair register as secondary to the stuff that surrounds them: a map of Italy on the wall, a chest, a chair, a dog, silver plates and foodstuffs. The picture functions as much as an inventory as a double portrait.
By contrast, Leyster zooms in. "The Proposition" zeroes in on a woman who thwarts a man's sexual overture. Leyster positions the pair against a bare wall and illuminates their faces with candlelight to create real intimacy.
Enough cannot be said of Leyster's active surfaces. She sets pigment dancing on her canvases, a trait she likely absorbed from Hals. A few brushy Hals portraits hang here to remind us of the connection.
In her portrait of a young boy, Leyster scratched with the back of her brush to mimic his hair's soft waves. In her self-portrait, the artist sets down rivulets of burgundy paint to create her skirt. The effect is a buzz on the canvas surface; the fleeting quality of those brushstrokes mimics her lively pose.
At the National Gallery, Leyster comes off as a singular, confident painter -- not bad for a talent who confirmed, centuries ago, that women sometimes simply cannot have it all.