Public Displays of Mastery: Judith Leyster and Dutch Women Artists of the Seventeenth Century

Written by Sophie Panzer
Edited by Lucia Bell-Epstein

Dutch genre paintings from the seventeenth century often portray women confined to the domestic sphere, idealizing their roles as mothers and homemakers. Images of women pouring milk, making lace, reading letters, and engaging in other forms of domestic labor disregard the role that women played in the public sphere, particularly their role in the market economy of an increasingly mercantile, capitalist, and socially mobile Dutch society. Women were active in local urban marketplaces and participated in the public sphere as producers of art and culture. However, they were rarely able to achieve public recognition through the same methods of artistic self-promotion and institutional support as their male counterparts due to the fact that they were largely excluded from artist guilds.

This begs the question: How did female artists achieve recognition for their work in the public sphere? What factors determined their cultural and financial success? While the artistic careers of these women were highly varied, the answer to these questions may lie in the study of Judith Leyster, one of the most famous woman artists to emerge from this period in Dutch history. Leyster’s life as an artist could be considered more ‘masculine’ than those of her female contemporaries in that she publicly supported herself through a guild and promoted herself as the artistic equal to her male counterparts rather than utilizing private, feminized mediums and elite social networks. In this essay, I will explore how Leyster was able to achieve public acclaim as an artist through traditionally male-dominated venues of artistic training and self-promotion. Specifically, I will examine how her lower class economic background, overtly self-promotional painting techniques, and participation in the Dutch art market set her apart from her fellow women artists who created art in elite private spheres.

Leyster’s economic background and early training stand out against her fellow female artists due to the fact that she was not born into an elite or even middle-class family, and therefore faced financial pressures to support herself through her work. This was highly unusual, not just for the Netherlands in the seventeenth century but for most women artists throughout history. Almost all the women artists of the early modern period were born into families of artists, but Leyster’s father was a textile worker and brewery owner.[1] In the early modern Netherlands, factors such as social class and other aspects of family background frequently had a more determinant effect on women’s production than did their gender; or at least these factors interacted with each other in complex ways.[2] Girls from middle class and wealthy artist families would be trained in the arts alongside their brothers, which gave them access to networks of other artists and patrons through their family connections.

Figure 1. Maria Sibylla Merian. “Metamorphoses on the stinging nettle plant.” Plate 26, The Caterpillar’s Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food, 1679.

The life of Maria Sybilla Merian, one of Leyster’s contemporaries, is far more representative of the typical life and background of a woman artist in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century than Leyster herself. Merian’s father was an artist who taught her watercolour and still-life painting alongside his male pupils, and her mother taught her embroidery. Despite being excluded from being able to produce large-scale history paintings and portray the nude body, she still received an artist’s training from her father.[3] Leyster’s father, on the other hand, did not have these elite connections or skills, and she pursued artistic training at least partially out of economic necessity. According to art historian Frieda Fox Hofrichter, one of the most in-depth and prolific researchers on the life of Judith Leyster, she was probably sent out to work with the De Grebber family at a young age, perhaps in the family workshop with Maria de Grebber (ca. 1610–after 1658), another young girl who dabbled in painting but who never became a member of the guild. Leyster was sent to work, most likely as an embroiderer, when her father lost his business to bankruptcy, which added to her financial incentive to enter higher-paying, traditionally male-dominated artistic institutions.[4] Her humble beginnings show the degree of social mobility she was able to achieve throughout her life due to her skill as a painter, and the general mobility offered by seventeenth century Dutch society.

Leyster stood out from other woman artists of this time period because she was an active member of a guild, an organization of craftsmen that set standards of production for the marketplace. Women who were born into wealth could pursue artistry within the feminine domains of home and family, but since Leyster lacked the connection to a wealthy, artistic family, joining the typically masculine arena of a guild was one of her only options to pursue a career as an artist. She was admitted to the Guild of St. Lukes in Haarlem in 1633 and had several students under her tutelage.[5] As a result, she was able to work in mediums that other female artists were typically excluded from due to guild regulations, especially oil painting. Aspiring female professional artists often cultivated novel, inventive techniques for this reason. Oil painting and printmaking were highly regulated, lucrative, and male-dominated practices. By working in a new medium, women artists were free to create unrestricted by unwelcoming frameworks.[6] Juffruow Rozee invented a technique for painting in silks that allowed her to sell her art without the restrictions of a guild or any artistic competition, and Elisabeth Ryberg achieved similar financial success by selling scissor work, another unregulated medium.[7] Leyster’s acceptance into the Guild of St. Lukes gave her the freedom to become familiar with the compositional techniques of the masters of Dutch art schools, especially Frans Hals. Her mastery of these techniques is evident in her paintings, and unfortunately this led to much of her work being attributed to other masters.[8] Although this gave her access to an education and opportunities that other women did not have, it also led to the public erasure of her skills after her death.

Leyster’s participation in the Guild of St. Lukes put her in the position of a craftswoman competing in the Dutch art market, while most of her female contemporaries found critical acclaim through networks of family connections to wealthy patrons. According to Honig, these women benefited from “A reputation…based on ‘amateur’ production as appreciated and celebrated within an elite social circle, and then that social circle, originally provided by birth, extends upwards to the most elite patrons through that reputation. The economics of artistic commerce are masked by the rituals of courtly visits, exchanges of compliments and of costly gifts.”[9] In other words, female artists achieved recognition of their work through informal networks of connections within elite social circles rather than official participation in guilds. Access to these networks was critical for an amateur woman artist achieving public recognition and commissions from wealthy patrons. Honig also mentions that women who were able to negotiate this area between feminine amateurism and practical, masculine commercialism were often the most renowned for their time, the subjects of multiple poems of praise and the most likely to receive commissions from patrons.[10] These methods of networking and self-promotion were not available to Leyster because she was born in a lower class.

When comparing Leyster’s methods of self promotion to those of other women artists, Maria Sibylla Merian’s career is again a useful foil to Leyster’s in that Merian was able to achieve recognition for her artistic work in this fashion. Her 1679 publication, The Caterpillar’s Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food – a book of drawings and still-lives depicting insects and plants in various life stages – was remarkable for a woman.[11] She was able to utilize artistic social networks in order to gain critical acclaim for operating within a feminine artistic medium and subject matter. Her focus on breeding, habitat, and metamorphosis fit nicely with the domestic practice of a seventeenth century housewife.[12] In “Metamorphoses on the stinging nettle plant,” (Figure 1) she combines an intense technical attention to detail with a focus on fertility, growth, and reproduction of butterfly and plant species.

While Merian and other women artists did not have to engage in the same practices of self-promotion that male artists had to utilize in order to make a living in a competitive market, Leyster defied this historical trend by pursuing an entirely practical, masculine path through her guild membership, teaching career, and painting style. The work that best encapsulates Leyster’s unconventional approach to the gender roles of painting and self-promotion is her 1633 self-portrait (Figure 2). Leyster’s casual pose and merry demeanour in this work is highly unusual for a formal portrait. Dutch women, particularly upper middle-class and aristocratic women, in seventeenth century portraits are typically characterized by solemnity and humility – they rarely smile. Leyster’s pose and confident grin would seem more suited to one of Rembrandt’s playful self-portraits, or possibly a woman in a tavern or brothel genre painting.

Figure 2. Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, 1633.

This painting is also distinctly masculine in its positioning of Leyster as the subject. It is modelled after portraits of men in which the male sitter appears on the privileged heraldic right (viewer’s left), and in this way Leyster has succeeded both in distinguishing herself from most so-called ‘ordinary’ women and in equating her artistic talent with those of her male competitors.[13]

The portrait seems to represent her actual success in acquiring the professional position, financial prosperity and social respect obtained by known contemporary men painters.[14] According to Yael Even, it is also “an example of what may be termed the masculinization that her image had to undergo in order to be elevated to the higher status that had been granted to her male competitors since birth merely because of their gender.”[15] In this way, it is similar to Job Berckheyde’s “Baker Blowing His Horn,” (Figure 3) where Berckheyde playfully depicts himself as a baker selling his wares in order to draw attention to the nature of his work as a both a creator of art and a craftsman who must promote himself and his wares. Both paintings reveal the artists’ consciousness that they are craftsmen attempting to survive through self-promotion in a market that is extremely competitive, offering upward social mobility to the successful and poverty and obscurity to those who fail.

Figure 3. Job Berckheyde, Baker Blowing His Horn, 1681.

Some female artists from this time period also worked in oil painting and self-portraiture, but few depicted themselves in the daring way that Leyster chose. For example, Clara Peeters inserted her self-portrait into the 1611 painting “Still Life With Flowers.” (Figure 4) Her image is difficult to make out at first glance until the viewer realizes she has painted her reflection in the facets of a gold cup, distorted and refracted in a close imitation of a real-life reflection. This work lacks the overtly self-promotional tropes typical of self-portraits done by male artists. Hers was a more understated form of marketing.[16] Peeters may have chosen to depict herself this way in order to display her technical skill as a painter and avoid incurring the wrath of Calvinist iconoclasts, but her understated treatment of her own image can be considered far more subtle and feminine than Leyster’s portrayal of herself in “Self Portrait.” Additionally, very little is known about Peeters’ life, and she seems to have kept details of her upbringing and career extremely private.

Figure 4. Clara Peeters, Still Life With Flowers, 1611.

It is also important to note that Leyster’s reputation would have been more vulnerable than that of her contemporaries as a result of her non-traditional self-promotion. She would have had to tread carefully as public creator of culture. Dutch attitudes about women in the public sphere during the seventeenth century were fraught and extremely complex. While foreigners remarked upon the degree of public involvement and agency granted to Dutch women in urban marketplaces, which were both spaces of commerce and feminine activity,[17] a woman who seemed too comfortable outside of the home would have been in danger of being considered the moral equivalent of a prostitute. According to art historian Elizabeth Honig, the legitimate woman in a public space is little better than an illegitimate “public” woman, a prostitute, for to be a seller is always potentially to sell yourself.[18] During her lifetime, Leyster’s reputation does not seem to have suffered from this association, at least not in any way that impacted her financial success as an artist, but she would have been aware of the dangers a life in the public sphere would have posed to women and was able to benefit from taking a calculated risk.

Leyster distinguished herself from other women artists in the public sphere during the Dutch Golden Age by utilizing masculine imagery in her paintings and joining the male-dominated domain of an artist’s guild in order to promote herself and her work. Since she did not come from an artistically elite family like Maria Sybilla Merian, she had to pursue public recognition and social mobility through other venues. Her guild membership, modest non-artistic background, and masculine positioning in “Self Portrait” were all highly unusual when considered in relation to her female contemporaries.

While Leyster was able to make a public name for herself as an artist during her lifetime, she was posthumously doomed to a period of obscurity after her death in 1633. Her achievements were ignored and her paintings were attributed to other masters, especially Hals – even her monogrammed pieces.[19] Before she was rediscovered by the Dutch art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot in 1893, no museum held any works attributed to her, her name was not recorded in sales catalogues, and no prints after her paintings were ascribed to her name.[20] It seems her fellow artists, art historians, and art collectors couldn’t grasp the idea that works displaying such skills such as hers could have been created by a woman. Her posthumous period of obscurity offers a final glimpse into the challenges faced by women who pursued public recognition for their talents as artists – even if they were able to achieve critical acclaim during their lifetime, their legacies could be further compromised by misogyny.



[1] Natalie Zemon Davis. Women on the margins: three seventeenth-century lives. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1997), 143

[2] Elizabeth Alice Honig. “The Art of Being “Artistic”: Dutch Women’s Creative Practices in the 17th Century.” Woman’s Art Journal 22, no. 2 (2001): 31-39.

[3] Davis, 143

[4] Frida Fox Hofrichter. Singular women: writing the artist. Ed. Kristen Frederickson and Sarah E. Webb (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2003) 42

[5] Frida Fox Hofrichter. Feminism and art history: questioning the litany. Ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Harper & Row. 1982) 132

[6] Honig, “Artistic” 33.

[7] Ibid., 34

[8] Hofrichter in Broude, 129

[9] Honig, “Artistic” 35

[10] Ibid., 34

[11] Davis, 154

[12] Ibid., 155

[13] Yael Even, Judith Leyster: An Unsuitable Place for a Woman, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 71:3, (2002) 115 – 116

[14] Ibid., 116

[15] Even, 117

[16] Angela Vanhaelen, Lecture 9/21/2017 – Fictions of the Pose

[17] Honig, “Market”, 300

[18] Ibid., 305

[19] Hofrichter, Singular Women, 38

[20] Ibid., 37

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