The Guild of Saint Luke was the official professional organization for all sorts of artists, including painters and sculptors but also engravers and book printers. Guilds ensured professional standards and created a path through the profession. They collected dues to take care of members who became disabled or any family left behind. They were also incredibly anticompetitive, barring the professional life of anyone who didn’t fit the mold. For most of the medieval and early modern period, the only Dutch women allowed in St. Luke’s guild were widows carrying on a late husband’s business. In 1633, however, the guild admitted a young woman named Judith Leyster as a master painter.
Imagine there’s something you just have to do. (If you’re extremely lucky, maybe you’ve already found this.) Now imagine you were barred from doing it because of who you are. Judith Leyster was born with an incredible talent for painting personalities and expressions, right at a time when character paintings were becoming popular. The only way to sell paintings, though, was to be a guild member, and they were all men. So how did the daughter of a brewer do it?
We’re not totally sure, but there are some hints. When Judith was 19 years old, a book about Haarlem referenced a wonderful young female painter with the implication that she was apprenticed to a family of painters called de Grebber. Two years later, Judith was a witness for the baptism of a daughter of renowned painter Frans Hals, to whom she was likely apprenticed. Even with his support, however, it was a bold thing for Judith to apply to the Guild of St. Luke at age 24. The self-portrait she painted to prove worthy of admittance is a stunning showcase of technical skill and depiction of personality. (It’s at the top of this story!)
Judith became the first woman in the Dutch Republic to be admitted as a master painter with her own studio. She’s thought to have created at least 48 paintings in her lifetime and the majority come from this period. In addition to her skill at depicting character through expression and posture, her work has a deft use of light and detail, including the lace that was popular at the time. Moreover, she depicted the world as it looked to a woman, whether it was a woman working at household chores or fending off an unwanted advance.
A few years after becoming a master painter, Judith married a fellow painter named Jan Molenaar and her work slowed down. Some believe that she stopped painting or only worked in her husband’s studio. Certainly, she was actively running her husband’s business selling his paintings as they moved to and around Amsterdam, then back to Haarlem, where she managed property as well. During the Amsterdam years, Judith created at least two watercolors of tulips for a popular book that’s still on display in Dutch museums. After her death, her work became misattributed to male painters. When one such forgery was discovered in 1893, it began a chain of research that brought her work back under the artist’s true name.
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