Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1633, oil on canvas, 74.6 x 65.1 cm / 29-3/8 x 25-5/8″ (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and we’re looking at a Baroque painting by Judith Leyster. This is a self-portrait.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] You use the word “Baroque,” which is interesting because she is in the Baroque period, but when we think about Baroque, we might think about Bernini or Caravaggio, or the Italian Baroque, and that sense of drama and energy, and here we are looking at a self-portrait. What makes this Baroque?

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] It’s not a religious painting.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] Right. It’s not the “Elevation of the Cross” or the “Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] This is the northern Baroque. This is the Dutch Baroque.

Dr. Harris: [0:37] At this point, in the 17th century, the Netherlands had broken away from Spanish control and had established an independent republic. In this republic, it was the merchant class that was buying art, and it was a really good time to be an artist.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] Especially if you could get into the guild. Judith Leyster did get into the guild. By guild, what I mean is something that’s close to the 21st century notion of a trade union. This was the Guild of Saint Luke. If you weren’t in the guild, you really couldn’t establish a proper studio with students. Commissions would be much diminished.

Dr. Harris: [1:08] Leyster was a professional artist. Obviously, she’s a woman. That combination was rare. We should say, too, that this is Holland, where Protestantism is the main religion, and so artists are not being commissioned by the church.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] The big difference here is that we don’t have the heavy-handed subject matter of religion. Instead, this is an artist at work, who’s just turned to talk to us for a moment.

[1:31] There is that real sense of spontaneity. You get that, not only by the awkward momentary position of her body. For instance, her elbow’s resting on the point of the chair. It can’t be comfortable. You know she’s not going to hold that for more than just a second.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] Her brush is poised. She’s turned around. She’s been interrupted.

[1:50] There’s also that Baroque sense of closeness. There’s not a lot of space between her and us. That elbow is foreshortened, coming into our space. The brushes on the lower right are foreshortened. There’s that breaking of the barrier between the viewer’s space and the space of the painting that we see often in Baroque art.

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] Those brushes seem as if they’re coming a little too close to us. She draws our eye up the angle of those brushes, past that wonderful flat plane of the palette — and I love this — with the representation of raw paint on the palette that she carefully painted.

Dr. Harris: [2:24] Right. It’s particularly close to the portraits of Frans Hals. She and Frans Hals were contemporaries. Art historians have conjectured that she may have studied with Frans Hals or been his apprentice, but there’s no documentation to show that.

[2:37] Look at how loosely painted that rag is, or the lace on her sleeve, or especially that pink satin or silk of her skirt. She probably wouldn’t have worn this clothing when she painted. She’s showing herself dressed up, probably to show her importance, her position.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] The higher position of art itself. This is so self-consciously entangled. She’s here painted a canvas that is a painting of a canvas and a rendering of a figure that was a very typical type in the 17th century called the “Merry Company.”

[3:09] If we look under the surface of paint, we can see that she had originally rendered a different figure, a female figure, perhaps a self-portrait. This would be a self-portrait of her painting a self-portrait.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] Instead, she decided to depict a type of subject that she was known for as a painter, the image of a musician, or a singer, or Merry Company pictures. She could sell herself as both a portrait painter and a genre painter to this new art-buying public in Holland in the 17th century.

Dr. Zucker: [3:38] Also, possibly, to the guild. There is conjecture that this was a presentation piece. She would have presented it as she came into the guild just a few years later.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] She displays a remarkable self-confidence and ease considering she’s only 21 years old. Her work was lost to us until the late 19th and early 20th century. Many of her works were ascribed to Frans Hals. It’s tempting to look at this through the lens of feminism, through the lens of women’s oppression. We certainly don’t talk about the work of male artists as the work of men.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] The question then is, how do we look at a painting like this acknowledging its separate history as the work of a woman and yet also take the painting on its own merits, her skill on its own merits?

[4:20] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait," in Smarthistory, December 14, 2015, accessed April 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/judith-leyster-self-portrait/.