Judith Leyster was a Dutch Golden Age painter who was specialised in genre paintings and still lifes. Her work was highly regarded by her contemporaries, however, after her death she was largely forgotten. Her entire work was attributed to other male painters.A “masterpiece”
It is a self-portrait in oil painted around 1633. By the time she was applying to be a master in the Saint Luke’s Guild in Haarlem that she painted this self-portrait. In order to enter into the Guild, the artists should offer a masterpiece and Judith Leyster chose to offer a self-portrait where she is showing off her skills, reaffirming her condition of a women artist, a talented artist. She entered into the Saint Luke’s Guild in Haarlem as an independent master in 1633.
It’s rare that she was admitted in the Guild, since women were excluded from joining this sort of association. But being part of a guild, it was very important to be successful, as it was extremely hard to sell artworks or even have a studio and accept pupils when one was not a Guild’s master.
She painted herself in what must have been her best clothes, a huge collar and silk sleeves which would also have been extremely expensive so, it is hard to believe that she would wear these specific clothes to paint. It is more probable that she wanted to be shown at her best, like most sitters for portraits. Painting herself in such expensive clothes allowed her to show off her skill at depicting the different textiles.
And on the easel, we can see as a work in progress, a laughing fiddler which is a typical example of one of Leyster’s favourites subject in genre painting. This figure on the easel appears in other of her surviving paintings The Merry Trio.
Even though it is a self-portrait of the artist it is made in a unique approach, since she painted herself, but she also painted herself working. By painting herself as an artist and wearing expensive clothes, Leyster was drawing attention to her wealth and success as an artist. The raw painting on her palette is other interesting detail of this painting; she used this to demonstrate her skills as a painter, and to distinguish herself from less skilled artists.
For years it was attributed to Frans Hals, one of the most important painters of Haarlem, and only in 1949, when it was acquired by the National Gallery of Art, it was properly attributed to Leyster. It is undeniable that the style of this self-portrait is indeed comparable to that of Frans Hals’s paintings (the loose brush strokes and the casual pose remember some of his stylistic choices), however it is not clear if she was Hals’s pupil.
As in other works of hers, this self-portrait has a momentary quality, the artist is partially turned to the viewer and her lips are parted as if she was speaking. Also, her arm is resting on the chair, a casual gest of self-confidence, the same self-confidence she had in her skills. Many art historians have interpreted that she is in this position and looking towards the viewers as inviting them to enter into her studio.
The figure on the easel was initially a portrait of a young girl as it was confirmed in an x-ray analysis, it would probably be a self-portrait of the artist painting a portrait, something very common by that days. However, Leyster decided to change it and show off her expertise in painting figures in theatrical poses as well as in portraiture. It has been suggested that Leyster saw in this self-portrait an opportunity to advertise her abilities.
Few years ago (2016) it was found a second self-portrait of the artist, dating from around 1653.
Some art critics have found in it a sense of “Baroque Closeness”, since the artist and the viewer are very close in space. In order to create this closeness many of the elements in the painting are foreshortened creating the illusion that they are coming out of the painting, invading the viewer’s space.