Progression of Art
This painting is one of two earliest paintings attributed to Leyster. Here we see a good natured, ruddy-cheeked man, lifting up his beer jug as if to show us that his drink has just run out. He wears a greenish-blue long tunic, and the sloping angle of his beret suggests it may be in danger of falling off at any moment. On the table in front of him is a small pipe and some wrapped tobacco.
As art historian Cynthia Kortenhorst-Von Bogendorf Rupprath tells us, the subject of this painting was popularized by the group of artists known as the Utrecht Carravaggisiti before becoming a subject common among Haarlem painters from the 1620s. The subject's clear enjoyment of smoking and drinking might have suggested both the pleasures of life and the dangers of excess. Many paintings of this period included subtle moralizing messages on the transience of life and its indulgences. In adapting this common theme, Leyster clearly shows her knowledge of contemporaneous painterly trends and the desire to give them her own spin.
The idea of vice is contrasted to cheerful demeanour of the subject of the painting. The intricate detail of the sitter's face conveys a sense of the individuality and personality that recognizes his enjoyment of his evening (or afternoon) and predicts that he has not had his last drink.
Oil on canvas - Frans Hals Museum, Netherlands
The Carousing Couple
This painting, which is also known as The Jolly Companions, depicts a couple as they drink and play music together. The man, wearing a wide black hat and large white ruff, leans back into his chair, his legs casually crossed, whilst in his hands he holds a violin aloft, as if about to play. His companion, nestled just behind him, holds an open beer jug and a glass of beer almost to her lips.
Like the Jolly Toper, Leyster depicts a moment of fun, and fills the picture with a lively energy. The facial expression on the young woman is particularly interesting: her cheeks flushed, she sends her half-smile towards her companion, looking at him fondly, or perhaps rather lasciviously. This could lead us to speculate on their relationship: are they a couple? Are they husband or wife? Or is another kind of transaction going on? Leyster leaves this unclear; she does however seem to suggest that this woman is sure of herself, and is not shy to show her own desire.
The man's direct look towards the viewer is open and relaxed, suggesting he hopes that the crowd enjoys his music as much as he does. Leyster often depicted musicians, either individually or in groups, creating her own interpretations on the theme of "the merry company" which often showed people of mixed genders drinking and having fun.
This painting was attributed to Frans Hals for hundreds of years due to a deliberate forgery. Leyster's signature was discovered in 1893.
Oil on panel - Department of Paintings of the Louvre, Paris
This striking self-portrait appears to show Leyster as a woman fully at ease with herself and in command of her work and her career. She appears at her easel, taking a moment before finishing a painting of a young smiling violinist. She turns to face the viewer, as if we have interrupted her, yet she appears welcoming. The details convey her mastery: she holds eighteen brushes in her left hand along with a palette through which her thumb is looped; in her right hand she holds one brush, poised to make its mark. She wears a formal ruff and luxurious dress - which she is unlikely to have worn in real life while painting, but which speaks to her financial success and social status.
Author Dominic Smith writes of this image: "Her lips are parted as if she's about to speak. Her eyes are quick and vital. The brush in her right hand is held almost parallel to the violinist's bow in the painting she's working on at her easel, suggesting, perhaps, that music making and painting are deeply connected and ephemeral". Like her portraits of other people, this image also seems to celebrate joy and movement. But while her earlier paintings seem to show people relaxing and drinking, here Leyster shows joy in her work.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel
In this painting, Leyster depicts two cheeky looking children, a young boy and a young girl. The boy holds a small cat in the crook of his elbow, a white eel in the other arm. The little girl pulls on the tail of the cat while raising her finger to the viewer; she seems to be communicating something to us with her little smile. The cat looks rather disgruntled and its claws are bared, yet the pose of the young boy and the confidence of the little girl suggest that they are unaware that at any moment, chaos could break loose.
Children were often used at this time to illustrate bad or improper behaviour. Art historian Cynthia Kortenhorst-Von Bogendorf Rupprath suggests that this painting represents a Dutch proverb which translates as: "he who plays with the cat gets scratched, meaning he who looks for trouble gets it." The little girl's gesture seems to confirm this idea, as if she actively trying to get the viewer to contemplate this lesson. However, as with The Carousing Couple, there is something rather charming in their pink cheeks and smiles, even if they are behaving badly.
Oil on oak - The National Gallery, London
Young Flute Player
In this work, Leyster captures a solitary moment in which a young boy delicately plays a flute. He looks up and out of the frame, as if lost in concentration, or perhaps in the beautiful music itself. The precise placement of his fingers suggests a musician completely at ease with his instrument. At the same time, the composition of the painting is slightly unusual: against this plain interior, Leyster includes a violin and a recorder awkwardly displayed on the wall. The boy's posture is also slightly strange, as he leans back against what looks like a damaged chair. The boy's dreamy gaze suggests the power of music to transport the listener, a power not unlike the power of art.
There are many similarities between painting and music that run throughout Leyster's career. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl comments particularly on her virtuosic use of color here: "The work's finely modulated browns and grays are breathtaking. They affect like essences of the flute's sound - you practically hear them."
Oil on canvas - Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
Self portrait of Judith Leyster
In this later self-portrait we see the older Leyster sitting down to work again with her paintbrushes. But, rather than the early picture, which contained many different paintbrushes and an example of her work in the frame, in this picture she is counterpoised against a blank, dark background, looking at the viewer at an almost downward angle. Though she still holds a palette in her hand, there only appears to be one color on there, and her easel is not visible. The focus is on the artist and not on the process of art-making itself.
Rather than the light color palette of the other self-portrait, and in contrast to her other work in general, Leyster here chooses a striking selection of blacks, whites and browns. The muted colors in this image along with the stern look upon Leyster's face seems to suggest that this is a woman who wants to communicate her seriousness to the viewer. Moreover, her upright position suggests the gravity of her craft: this is a painting that speaks of deep experience, a life lived in painting. Her dress, while similarly somber, still attests to her financial success and technical mastery of her craft with its delicate lace details.
Oil on canvas - Private collection