Tag Archives: 17th. century

Judith Leyster. 1609 – 1660. Self Portrait 1633.



Judith Leyster was one of two women to be a member of the Haarlem Guild of St.Luke and the only women who became a Master Painter in the period known as the Dutch Golden Age, she was brought to my attention by Amanda Vickery in a television series called Women in Art. Women painters are far fewer in number than male painters and there are several reasons for this, often the question is posed ‘Why are there no great female painters’ I would like to put forward one or two theories of why this is so and ask if you have others. Firstly in the past young men joined art studios and art schools as apprentices, it was not considered fitting for  women to do so, students learnt the necessary skills over many years, while  most young women were expected to marry and raise a family, needlework such as making samplers or doing embroidery was acceptable and  being skilled at drawing botanical illustrations was a popular pursuit also amateur artists and young people from wealthy backgrounds were able to undertake lessons from a tutor at home. There were a few voices who commented on the place of women such as John Stuart Mill who wrote ‘ The subjection of women to me, being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.’  And so we see artists traditionally trained in the studio system and it was male dominated,  gallery owners also denied women a space to exhibit.

Secondly, a popular view was that a ‘divine creator’ provided the creativity and imagination required in a literal way, I think many considered such inspiration to be a male phenomena, although there are exceptions such as reclusive nuns who often reached heights of the sublime. The artist who was a misfit or social outcast was also seen as special, these reasons may well have been a factor driving the person onward, if we study a Van Gough painting for example, we find an intensity, an energy. Thirdly, without doubt it is very difficult to combine being a mother who provides her children with emotional and physical security with being a dedicated painter or any art form, compromises will need to be made, a middle way sought. Women cannot be equal in all ways, physically is an example, we are not as strong and we bear the offspring, but what women would like is the freedom to make informed choices and we are fortunate to live in a society that is on the whole equal.  I do not know why Judith Leyster painted very little after the birth of their five children, she will have grieved for those who did not survive, perhaps it was a conscious decision or ill health may have been the cause, she died in her fifties.

Lastly there is this idea of the artist as being a  ‘genius’ but few men or women are born geniuses, I know I have been heard to say he/she is a genius when I mean someone extra talented, and there are child prodigies of course.  A certain kind of intelligent curiousity  is required,  it is usually an incremental process,  encouragement from the artist’s family may have an influence also there is a saying ‘it’s in the genes’referring to shared family traits, I do not know what truth there is in the statement, if artistic creativity surrounds the young person it may well leave an impression, some succeed in spite of opposition.

Judith Leyster was the eighth child in the family, her father was a brewer and cloth maker until he ventured into a coffee house business which made him bankrupt, Judith may have sold paintings to help the family finances, The family moved to Utrecht where Judith Leyster set up a studio in 1633 where she employed three male apprentices, unusual for the time, that is when this self portrait was painted, she married a painter, Jan Miense Molenier in 1636. Judith gave up painting after her children were born except for two known works, an illustration for a book about tulips, published in 1643 and a portrait in 1652. The painting above painted in 1633 ensured her reputation, she may have been a student of Hals, her work has certain qualities that he had but she was not an imitator of his work.  A self portrait is revealing, it gives identity as an artist, here we see her holding the paint brush, it is not set aside on a table, we see she is working, she paints in the Dutch tradition, she had no wish to be controversial, her head is turned away from the easle, her subjects were often musicians, she meets our gaze, it is a proud look, not provocative though, she is dressed in the fine clothes of the Dutch middle class to symbolically show us her social and economic status, – a painter would usually wear a smock,  her pose is informal, she is at ease, the arm holding the paint brush rests on the arm of the chair, she seems relaxed, confident.

The use of paint among professional artists is on the decline, that may change, many women and men with time on their hands paint for pleasure, it is not hard to find art classes  in many locations around the country for them to join.


The image is from Wikipedia Commons.

Johannes Vermeer. 1632 – 1675.




Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft in the Netherlands, we know very little about his life, he lived in a small house with his wife and children.  Delft had been in the forefront of a struggle to gain freedom from Spanish oppression until 1648, William of Orange, one of the leaders against the Spanish had died there earlier in 1584. The Eighty Year War had raged between 1568 to 1648, the Golden Age of paintings followed from the mid to late 17th.century, the Dutch led European trade, art and science. When the town became settled a small group of burghers administered in the town, dressed in the traditional black clothes of the Puritans. Delft was a centre for the earthenware industry, its narrow streets were built in a ‘classical regularity,’  winding canals reflected the houses and trees along its banks, Gothic churches were numerous, good subject matter for artists to portray. Many households owned small paintings showing elegant drawing rooms, domestic scenes and landscapes, large works of art were in the municipal buildings.

The art was not Baroque in the sense of love of splendour, more like the detailed realism found in early Netherland painting. Dutch Calvanism forbade the creation of religious art so scenes of every day life flourished, the painters looked to at the way light was used to great effect in the old masters, Vermeer was particularly skilled at creating light.

I have chosen two paintings to discuss, both using oil on canvas, the first, ‘A Maid -servant Pouring out Milk’ is now in the Rijks-museum in Amsterdam, the second ‘ Young Woman with a Water Jug, ‘  scenes of  ‘upstairs downstairs,’ if you watched the television series years ago you will know what I mean. In the first painting Vermeer composes  the images as a pyramid, the maid’s head at the top, he uses a dotted technique to paint the moving light on the crumbly bread and on her blue apron,  the blue is ultramarine, which is expensive crushed lapis lazuli. The white of the coif against the white-washed wall is ‘a miracle of craftmanship’ colour against colour, tone against tone, the paint was lead white, we see the starched white cap against the cream and umber dress, covered by a glaze in the same colours.

Maids in Dutch art were seen in two ways, firstly one who may threaten the honour and security  of the home and disturb the peace with her loose ways, or as Vermeer chose do in a bengin way, he treats his subject  empathetically, he sees her as a person who symbolises a virtuous, hard working young woman, – we may ask ourselves, is she wistful or is she concentrating on her task. The young woman is sturdily built, solid, the weight of the table also also gives the impression of weight. It is thought that the maid is making a bread pudding, she slowly pours the milk into the dish called a Dutch oven, peices of bread, probably stale, are ready to be covered by the milk, ordinary food items, a typical domestic scene. Other symbols are also present which can have double meanings, one of the Delft tiles on the floor against the wall shows Cupid, an amorous symbol, the coals in the foot warmer behind the maid could be the hot coals of lust or the passion of a woman for her husband, even milk itself can be construed to contain sexual content!

Vermeer was a respected painter and art dealer, he was a member of the Guild House of St.Luke in Delft, guilds were later to become academies. In his early work, he portrayed every day items, simple motifs and characters such as in this painting, a maid working in the house, in the second painting the scene is one with probably the mistress of the house, painted between 1660 and 1662, by this tme Vermeer’s work had become more contemplative, he worked in a disciplined way. In the second painting the woman holds the gilded jug which is on a platter, the table is covered with a red -coloured table cloth on which is a jewellery box, a symbol of wealth, the scene is set in a private room, there is water and a basin, symbols of purity.  The woman may be Vermeer’s wife or daughter, she is dressed in blue with a black and white over piece, on her head is a white cloth, she gazes out of the window, the light pours in, we see it on her arm particularly well, on the wall we see a map,  two women with differing roles.

The artist David Hockney set a cat among the pidgeons when he thought he had proved that Vermeer had used camera obscura to aid his work in many paintings, others had thought so before him, it may be true, the evidence I saw in a documentary seemed convincing, but it does not belittle Vermeer’s genius. His work has a still quality which I like.

There is also a film called The Girl with the Pearl Earing which is an imaginery construction of Vermeer’s work on the painting with the same name.