- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dutch artist Judith Leyster was a respected artist of the 1600s, but her talents might have been completely forgotten had there been no lawsuit.

In 1893, the authenticity of a painting attributed to the Dutch painter Frans Hals was contested after it was shown to be signed with the initials “JL” and a star, a play on the name Leyster, which means lodestar or comet. The case was settled and the work reattributed to Leyster, whose reputation has since been resuscitated by art historians eager to prove she was more than a Hals imitator.

At the National Gallery of Art, leading Leyster scholar Frima Fox Hofrichter and curator Arthur Wheelock make a convincing case for the Haarlem artist’s distinctive accomplishments in a small exhibit organized to celebrate her 400th birthday. Ten paintings by Leyster — about a third of her known works — are shown alongside canvases by Hals and her husband Jan Miense Molenaer, with whom she shared a studio.

They prove Leyster was a more versatile artist than many of her male Dutch contemporaries who tended to specialize. She painted genre scenes, portraits and still lifes, mostly in the 1630s, with a consistent liveliness.

Hals may have been her teacher or an influential colleague based on the similarities of their vigorous brushstrokes. In the exhibit, the older Dutch artist’s paintings of children and Leyster’s “Young Boy in Profile” appear strikingly similar in their rosy-cheeked portraits of youth.

Leyster’s particular talent was joyously picturing musicians having a good time. “Merry Company” captures the high spirits of a fiddler and his drinking companions through large figures laughing at the viewer. “Concert” depicts a lively recital by a violinist and a lute player in the company of a female friend.

A later, more meditative work, “Young Flute Player,” portrays a boy sitting in a broken chair while fingering his instrument. Daylight illuminates his face while his body casts shadows on the wall where a violin and recorder hang at the ready.

Music was a common theme for 17th-century painters who used it as a metaphor for love, domestic harmony and the transience of life. Molenaer’s “The Duet,” which may have been painted to commemorate his marriage to Leyster, pictures the artist playing a lute while his wife strums a stringed instrument known as a cittern. She looks bored and a bit unhappy, perhaps because her husband’s painting style was far more stilted than her own.

Leyster’s knack for capturing merriment extended to intimate pictures of social encounters between men and women. In “The Proposition,” a sewing woman ignores the advances of a man offering her coins, presumably for sexual favors.

Her quietly sympathetic scene of a woman at home is one of the first to express this Dutch theme, which didn’t become popular until the 1650s.

Similarly suggestive of seduction is a jollier painting of three figures playing a type of backgammon called tric-trac. The winning male player looks knowingly at the viewer as he rests one hand on a game piece and the other in his lap while his female companion offers him a pipe.

Pictures of carousing men in taverns were already popular when Leyster painted these scenes. However, her pictures differed from the usual compositions in their intimacy through fewer figures, simpler settings and faces lit by the visible flames of oil lamps. Such dramatic lighting effects were more commonly applied to religious subjects and portraits than genre scenes.

In Holland, this play of light and shadow, known as chiaroscuro, was popularized by a group of Utrecht artists who were influenced by the work of Baroque Italian artist Caravaggio. (Visitors interested in seeing a painting by one of these artists, Hendrick ter Brugghen, should head to Gallery 44 where his 1624 portrait of a bagpipe player now hangs; this recent acquisition is the first painting by a Utrecht Caravaggisti to enter the museum’s collection).

Leyster may have learned about these candlelit scenes as a teenager. In 1628, her father, a weaver and a brewer, went bankrupt and moved the family to a town near Utrecht.

The following year, Leyster created the earliest work in the show, “Serenade,” with the theatrical flair of a Caravaggisti. The illuminated face of the lute player in the painting is far more theatrical than Hals’ more evenly lit portraits.

At age 24, Leyster entered Haarlem’s guild of professional artists and set up her own workshop. To qualify for guild membership, she may have submitted the vivacious self-portrait displayed in the exhibit that now belongs to the National Gallery. Pictured on her easel in this work is a figure plucked from “Merry Company.”

Leyster’s forward-looking art earned her fame during her lifetime, but after marrying Molenaer in 1636, her career abruptly stopped. She may have been too burdened caring for a growing family and her husband’s business to continue her creative work.

A disappointing still life from around 1640 indicates that when she did paint, this mother of five may have limited herself to such dull pictures so as not compete with her husband’s specialty of genre scenes and portraits.

All this is conjecture since little is known about Leyster in the decades before her death in 1660. Only for a mere six years, from 1629 to 1635, did her star shine brightly in paintings rightfully praised by a 17th-century art historian for their “good and keen insight.”

WHAT: “Judith Leyster 1609-1660”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 29


PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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