Who was Judith Leyster? Google Doodle celebrates life and work of Dutch Golden Age painter

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Professional female painters were rare in Europe in the 17th century

Today’s Google Doodle (19 December) celebrates the life and work of Judith Leyster. But who was the Dutch painter and what was she best known for? Here’s what you need to know.

Who was Judith Leyster?

Judith Leyster was a 17th-century painter and a central figure in the Dutch Golden Age.  She painted genre works, portraits and still lifes.

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The Dutch Golden Age was a period of history in the Netherlands - roughly spanning the era from 1588 to 1672 - in which Dutch trade, science, art and the Dutch military were among the most acclaimed in the world.

Leyster’s work was highly regarded by her contemporaries, but became almost forgotten after her death. It was not until the late 19th century that she was recognised for her artistic skill. Misogyny and a forged signature caused art dealers to misattribute her paintings to male artists for decades, but today’s Doodle celebrates her work.

Leyster, whose name means “lodestar” (a person or thing that serves as an inspiration or guide), was born in Haarlem in 1609. Although art historians know little about her formal education, it’s thought she showed remarkable talent at a young age. When poet Samuel Ampzing visited Haarlem to chronicle the city in 1628, he described 19-year-old Leyster as a painter of “good and keen insight.”

It’s also thought she may have learned painting from Frans Pietersz de Grebber, who ran a workshop in Haarlem in the 1620s. Her first known signed work is dated 1629 and by 1633 she was admitted as a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. She was one of the first women admitted to the prestigious painters’ guild. During this time, she also set up her own studio and began taking in students.

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At the time, professional female painters were rare in Europe but Leyster didn’t let this dissuade her. She used spontaneous and free signature brushstrokes to capture everyday life and finished her first known painting, Serenade and Jolly Topper, in 1629. She signed with a distinct monogram: “J.L.” crossed by a star - a play on her last name.

Although Leyster earned the respect of her peers and enjoyed financial success as an artist, she was erased from history when art scholars later mistook her paintings as those of her male contemporaries.

But, in 1892, a keen observer noticed a star insignia on one of Leyster’s paintings in the Louvre and explained how it did not match the signature of the male artist. This exposed the misattribution and allowed Leyster to reclaim her place in history.

Scholars have since identified more than 30 Leyster masterpieces. Among her known works, the most famous is a self-portrait turning to the viewer with a knowing smile.

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Google Doodle (19 December) celebrates the life and work of Judith Leyster (Photo: Google Doodle)Google Doodle (19 December) celebrates the life and work of Judith Leyster (Photo: Google Doodle)
Google Doodle (19 December) celebrates the life and work of Judith Leyster (Photo: Google Doodle) | Google Doodle

What about the artist’s private life?

In 1636, Leyster married Jan Miense Molenaer, a prolific artist who worked on similar subjects. The couple moved to Amsterdam where Molenaer already had clients and remained there for eleven years before returning to Heemstede in the Haarlem area. There they shared a studio in a small house located in the present-day Groenendaal Park. Leyster and Molenaer had five children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.

Most of Leyster’s dated works predate her marriage and are dated between 1629 and 1635. There are few known pieces by her painted after 1635. This includes two illustrations in a book about tulips from 1643, a portrait from 1652, and a still life from 1654 that was discovered in a private collection in the 21st century.

Leyster died in 1660 at the age of 50. She was buried at a farm just outside of Haarlem. Her artwork was then not recognised as hers for close to 200 years after her death.

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