As the most famous and successful woman artist in the 17th-century Dutch Republic, Judith Leyster broke boundaries and impacted art history with her thematic and technical innovations in genre painting. Featuring red-faced drinkers, a confident self-portrait, cheerful musicians, and a gorgeously photorealistic tulip, these ten paintings exemplify Leyster’s legacy and provide entertaining insights into everyday life in the Dutch Golden Age.
1. Judith Leyster’s Iconic Self-Portrait
Painted in 1630 at the height of her career, Judith Leyster’s self-portrait naturally depicts the artist sitting at an easel with a paintbrush in her dominant hand. In her other hand, Leyster clutches a palette, cloth, and over a dozen additional paintbrushes, representing her creative and technical skills. Leyster’s large lace collar and luxurious dress are not necessarily what she would have worn while painting in the studio. Rather, this attire symbolizes her success and status during the Dutch Golden Age. The background of the painting is intentionally dark and nondescript, drawing attention to Leyster and her in-progress painting of a musician, one of her favorite subjects.
What makes Leyster’s self-portrait remarkable is how it actively engages its audience. With a subtle smile, Leyster turns to gaze directly and confidently at the viewer as if she has just been interrupted at her easel. Leyster’s loose, energetic brushwork further emphasizes that this portrait is a dynamic yet fleeting moment, not a static facade. The self-portrait, which is on permanent display in the American National Portrait Gallery’s prestigious collection, is among her most famous paintings today.
2. The Concert
Like most of Judith Leyster’s paintings, including her self-portrait, The Concert has a plain background to eliminate distraction from the three musicians, who are in the midst of a performance. Leyster, in accordance with the dominant genre painting style of the Dutch Golden Age, naturally captured each individual with keen attention to detail—including the unique expressions on their faces, the different directions of their gazes, and the intricate folds and textures of their clothing. Additionally, Leyster’s mastery of light and shadow, another hallmark of Dutch Golden Age art, energizes the atmosphere of The Concert.
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Scholars have suggested that the female singer in the center of the composition is a self-portrait of Leyster, while the violinist is likely a portrait of Leyster’s husband, and the lute player is a family friend whom Leyster painted on other occasions. The Concert has also been interpreted as an allegory of the virtue of harmony, as the trio of musicians must work together to unify their individual contributions into a singular, beautiful sound.
3. The Jolly Drinker
During the Dutch Golden Age, cheerful drinkers in over-the-top outfits were a popular and entertaining subject for genre painters. Judith Leyster’s The Jolly Drinker—also known as The Jolly Toper and A Fool Holding a Jug—showcases the aesthetic and thematic possibilities of such a subject. By capturing the essence of everyday contemporary life with a subtle sense of humor, The Jolly Drinker is a quintessential example of Leyster’s oeuvre and Dutch Golden Age genre painting as a whole.
Sporting a dramatic feathered cap, flushed cheeks, and an exaggerated grin, Leyster’s drinker joyfully lifts his open beer jug for another swig. The realistic details of the attire, drinking vessel, and tablescape help convincingly bring the scene to life. The angular placement of the table, and the illusionistic projection of some of its contents across the foreground and into the viewer’s space, create a realistic yet dramatic effect typical of Baroque painting.
4. A Boy and A Girl with a Cat and an Eel
Judith Leyster frequently painted children playing and laughing. A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel is a cheerful genre scene featuring two children with small animals in their arms. The painting may have been inspired by a Dutch proverb that warns, “He who plays with cats gets scratched.” The boy grins as he proudly raises the eel in his fist, while the girl wraps her fingers around the cat’s tail. Are these children playing innocently with unfamiliar creatures, or are they knowingly pushing the limits of acceptable behavior? Thanks to Judith Leyster’s skill at rendering the complexities of human emotion and expression, even in small children, both the delights of childlike wonder and the looming consequences of curiosity simultaneously shine through in A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel.
5. Man Offering Money to a Young Woman
Man Offering Money to a Young Woman is another excellent example of Judith Leyster’s ability to artistically express the complexities of social interaction. Illuminated by the warm glow of an oil lamp, a young woman diligently bends over her needlework. Looming over her shoulder, a man demands her attention and offers her a handful of coins. Like other leading artists of the Dutch Golden Age, Leyster used light and shadow to add tension and emotion to Man Offering Money to a Young Woman. The oil lamp casts a harsh shadow on the man’s assertively hopeful expression, while the woman, unperturbed by his proposition, softly reflects the lamp’s glow as she remains focused on her needlework. Instead of specifying the nature of the proposition, Leyster’s painting cleverly relies on aesthetic and emotional cues, leaving viewers to ponder the exact nature of the encounter and its possible outcomes.
6. Boy Playing the Flute
In Judith Leyster’s Boy Playing the Flute, natural light streams into the room from an unseen window, illuminating the young boy’s face as he plays a song on his wooden flute. The interior he occupies is stark except for the violin and recorder hanging on the wall, their shadows adding a naturalistic sense of depth to an otherwise flattened background. With puffed cheeks and an active upward gaze, the boy leans back in his chair and seemingly loses himself in the music. The boy’s precarious balance, combined with the movement of Leyster’s visible brushstrokes, emphasizes the ephemerality of this moment. Typical of 17th-century Dutch genre painting, Leyster’s Boy Playing the Flute is open to layers of interpretation. Is this painting a simple snapshot of an everyday moment? Or are viewers meant to ponder the nature of youth which, much like a musical number or a leaning chair, is fleeting?
7. The Last Drop
Beneath the lighthearted and entertaining facade of Dutch Genre paintings often lies a deeper message. Because the Dutch Republic was a Protestant nation, overtly religious paintings were not in high demand during the Dutch Golden Age. Instead, Dutch artists incorporated popular proverbs and contemplative symbols into their genre and still-life compositions to warn viewers against certain vices.
Judith Leyster’s The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) is, at first glance, yet another raucous party scene. But closer inspection reveals details that warn against the consequences of over-indulgence. According to the titular cavalier’s costume, this painting takes place the night before Lent, when people frequently gather to indulge before the impending period of abstinence. The haunting presence of an animated skeleton in The Last Drop does nothing to distract the cavalier and his companion from their drunken merriment. The skeleton threateningly wields an hourglass and a skull, symbolic reminders of the transience of life.
8. Leyster’s Tulip Book
While still-life painting wasn’t Judith Leyster’s specialty, it was too popular during the Dutch Golden Age for her to ignore it entirely. Additionally, during the so-called tulip mania of the 1630s, the rapidly rising value of the tulip bulb created an enormous market for floral still-life paintings and drawings in the Dutch Republic. In 1643, Leyster contributed a watercolor drawing to a Tulip Book, a folio of drawings on parchment that cataloged dozens of individual varieties of tulip blooms with near-photographic accuracy.
Leyster’s immaculate attention to detail and dimensional use of light and shadow give the tulip an illusionistic appearance as intended. Tulip Books were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and were usually commissioned and compiled by wealthy botanists, collectors, or dealers. Early Brabanston Tulip is one of Judith Leyster’s last known artworks, as her output of signed genre paintings virtually ceased after her marriage in 1636.
9. The Merry Company
Much like the aforementioned painting The Jolly Toper, Judith Leyster’s The Merry Company captures a moment of everyday fun. This time, the moment is shared between a young couple who are cheerfully drinking and playing music together. With its use of chiaroscuro, warm color palette, and an active composition that leaps out of the foreground, The Merry Couple seemingly invites the viewer to participate in the intimate scene.
This painting also demonstrates Leyster’s ability to capture the nuances of human personality and social interaction. Here, the young man happily relaxes back into his chair and confidently raises the bow to his violin, perhaps to serenade his companion. The young woman lifts a glass of beer to her lips and, cheeks flushed, smiles towards the man with love or lust, depending on your interpretation. The enigmatic nature of the couple’s relationship status makes the scene especially engaging.
10. The Serenade by Judith Leyster
Painted when Judith Leyster was just 20 years old, The Serenade is among the artist’s earliest signed works. This captivating painting shows a cheerful lute player, whose lips are parted as if to sing as he plays his instrument. Leyster depicted the lute player from a dramatically low vantage point, with his striped trousers appearing slightly out of focus. This innovative pictorial effect creates the illusion that viewers are looking up at the lute player from very close by. Perhaps the intended recipient of the lute player’s serenade is among the viewers of the painting, waiting just outside the frame for the song’s conclusion.
After Leyster’s death in 1660, The Serenade was wrongfully attributed to Frans Hals, a more famous Dutch male artist by whom Leyster was often inspired. The error was not corrected until a scholar finally identified Leyster’s signature in the late 19th century. Today, The Serenade is exhibited in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum’s prestigious Gallery of Honor, belatedly but rightfully positioning Judith Leyster in the company of Dutch Golden Age superstars like Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer.