Judith Leyster’s Sensuous Passions

The perfect antidote to the oppressive  grandeur of the National Mall—its heaps of marble, imperial axis running from the Capitol to Lincoln sitting in judgment, the glowering stone edifices lining the vast lawns, war memorials, and equestrian generals—is to a retreat to the interior, to the intimacy and wit of genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. In the National Gallery the bright sunshine beating down on the tourists’ parade ground outside can be escaped for the solace of the candle, sunlight filtering through stained glass, the dog peeing in church—a federal offense were such an assault directed at Jefferson’s columns. In these pictures the military band or massed demonstration outside is drowned out by the imagined  sound of a lute or virginal that fills only a sparsely decorated room in 17th-century Amsterdam or Delft or Utrecht—music intended not to rally the troops, but meant instead for the recreation and edification of one player or two, and perhaps a single listener. Instead of a speech for millions, a lady writes a letter.

As Vermeer’s woman at her amorous correspondence reminds us, as if we needed such reminding, the architecture surrounding the Mall is very male: Washington’s phallic obelisk provides proof enough of that. Following still further such a literal approach to the interpretation of architecture, one could see the Capitol dome as a woman’s breast, with the bronze statue of a female Freedom on top as its nipple: the mother of democracy suckling the infants who patrol the chambers and corridors below. But the plethora of columns at her base and all around the building belie the ascendance of the feminine: men sculpted, cast, paid for her, and put here up there. They all want mommy.

It is interesting to me that many of the male titans of war, politics, and capital had a soft spot for Dutch paintings: Holy Roman Emperors, Frederick the Great, and Andrew Mellon all favored them, and I don’t believe that fashion in art collecting alone can explain the affection. Perhaps after epic military campaigns, or long days on the fiscal battlefield the gentle details and warmth of the domestic space, the kitchen, the tavern, the rustic dance comforted these men after their days spent crushing enemies.

Mellon’s collection, which included Vermeer’s A Lady Writing and Girl with a Red Hat, and his money, safely shielded from the income tax he hated and successfully avoided during his decade tenure as Secretary of the Treasury,  endowed the National Gallery of Art, where the pictures he once owned now hang.

In just two of the smaller of the National Gallery’s wood-paneled galleries, running until November 29, is an exhibition devoted to the work of Judith Leyster, one of the most musical of the Dutch painters of the 17th century. Bringing together pictures held by National Gallery with pieces from many other European and American museums, as well as from private collections, the show commemorates the 400th anniversary of her birth. In this year of celebrations of male composers’ births and deaths—Purcell, Haydn, Handel, and Mendelssohn—Leyster’s lively faces and perfectly executed musical instruments held by glowing, expressive hands remind us that music—La Musica—is herself a woman.

Though a masterful painter, Leyster’s work fell into obscurity partly because she  did not sign her work.  A history of Haarlem from 1647-8, praises her by punning on her name, calling her a “leading-star in art” (Leyster=lodestar). Leyster’s monogram, rediscovered in several paintings by art historians only in 1893, is made up of a J connected to a star.  After Leyster’s artistic identity was in this way revealed, the person behind many already-admired paintings could now add value and interest to the work itself.  That the artist was a woman has, over the last century, added increasingly to the value of and interest in the paintings.

Leyster was likely a student of Frans Hals, whose Young Man in a Large Hat is included in the Washington exhibition. The picture once belonged to Andrew Mellon and dates from around 1626, that is, from near the beginning of what was probably the first of Leyster’s two stints totaling six years in Hals’ workshop. Starting her tutelage with Hals as a seventeen-year-old, she copied and modified many of his paintings, and the faces of her subjects owe much to her teacher in the ruddiness of their cheeks, the glancing eyes, the play and contrast light off the features, the broad brush strokes, the exuberant costumes, and a remarkable talent for capturing the energy and optimism of children. By way of establishing this lineage, two of Hals’ musical youths are here: a singing girl looking down with great concentration at her book of music, her hand seemingly ready to turn the page but also keeping time to her voice’s melody; and the boy in a fur hat, mouth parted and eyes looking obliquely heavenward, as if his scratchy fiddling were as transporting as the psalms are to the girl in the frame next door.

Perhaps the teenage Leyster had been released from domestic oversight and parental plans for a more predictable female path through the world because her father had gone bankrupt in 1624. Kept wives and daughters were privilege of wealth, but working meant that Leyster would have the chance to become an artist.

She was successful. By 1633 she had a become a member of the painters’ guild in artistically flourishing Haarlem. Her admission piece, a self-portrait, is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery. In it Leyster captures herself while at work: she is turned away from her easel on which sits a picture of a violinist in light blue costume, his little finger raised off the bow, his head cocked playfully. The musician’s buoyant expression suggests Leyster’s own attitude towards her subjects and her craft. The painter herself looks away from her easel and towards us. Her perfect right hand with its brush is placed exactly in the center of the picture: hands are not only as meangingful as faces for this artist, but the position and execution shows that this is the crucial tool for executing what the dark eyes looking straight at the viewer themselves see. The hand and fingers of the artist must be as talented and trained as those of the musician.

Though Leyster pictures herself at her easel, she is certainly not in her work clothes. Not a speck of the paint from her palette flecks her lush bodice. The lace of her wispy cuffs, thin wide ruff, and starched bonnet is all done in exquisite detail. The lush purples and reds of her satin sleeves and her dark hair shimmer beneath the scrim of white fabric. Her expression is one of amusement, as if the idea of catching herself at her work unmasks the game of illusion she is playing with us and with herself.

The violinist on the easel in this self-portrait appears as one of the three youths in the Merry Company painted one or two years earlier.  One lad in a red outfit and feathered cap holds a full glass of wine at a precarious angle and regards the viewer with an unashamedly tipsy grin; the violinist, pictured her in full length, kicks up a leg as if drunk with his own music, which is ornamented with alcohol. A somewhat plumper companion basks in the bright spirit of song and drink combined. A grinning child, her mother, and father enjoy the scene from a small nearby window.

Children not only listen to music, but as in Hals, make it. Leyster’s Young Flute Player from 1635  sits in a chair in front of a wall reflecting natural light coming from an unseen window.  On the wall behind hang a violin with its bow wedged between strings and a recorder.  The background explores the hues of wooden instruments against a brown plaster wall whose texture is brought out by the light.  in front of this, the boy plays a transverse flute, more darkly finished then either of the instruments on the wall behind, and his coat is a greenish brown that harmonizes with the subdued  tones around him. His red hat adds color, but it too is modulated towards the earthen. The boy’s face is the bright spot in the picture, and his eyes are once again cast upward towards the radiant source: though the picture is muted, the music he plays cannot be.  Like sight, the sound in Leyster’s pictures also seeks the light.

The adults retain the same musical exuberance as the young. Serenade from 1629 pictures a lutenist in a big hat of fur and feather that seems to have grown from the player’s own luxurious curls. While the hat is dark, lavish not in color but materials and shape, the lutenist himself is clad in bright clothes: a green-silver shirt with narrow strips and trousers with red and black swathes—almost as if he were wearing a Clifford Styll canvas. The face is aglow with light and music: the immediacy of the unheard sound and the uplift of private performance—akin to the private performance of the painter—draws us in even as the eyes of the lute player look towards an ideal world beyond. And so our thoughts go there, too: these paintings and their music are always about themselves and something else, too, even if what that something else is will remain a mystery.

In 1636 Leyster married the Haarlem painter Jan Molenaer, and the usual line is that she devoted herself increasingly to motherhood and domestic life, even, it is suggested by the exhibition’s curators, curtailing her activities so as not to compete with her husband, who also specialized in portraits and genre paintings. Of the pair’s five children, only two outlived their parents. But why would an entrepreneurial painter like Molenaer prematurely retire his prime asset? Composers and artists alike made good use of spouses with shared interests and abilities, and Leyster was far more than simply capable. The reference to Leyster as a “leader star” came in the second decade of her marriage, suggesting her continued fame as a painter. And the inventory of Molenaer’s estate after his death in 1668, eight years after that of his wife, lists many works by her, now largely lost.

Molenaer’s Violinist from the early 1630s is also in the show, but for my money lacks the natural ease and fluency of his wife’s treatment of the subject. Similarly, his self-portrait made in the early years of their marriage has the artist in cavalier’s cloak and hat with high-heeled shoes accented with a extravagant red bow.  He tunes his instrument, apparently getting set for a postprandial music-making; the pipe too has been smoked, and the remains of the feast are arrayed on the table at his side. The next course will be lute music. His is a self-confident face, unsmiling.  The lute music shortly to ensue seems intended more to achieve digestive calm than distracting amusement.  There is a hint of melancholy: the respected male painter will not be seduced by the pleasures of song and dance. Music is here a form of contemplation, a representation of accomplishment and seriousness of purpose in art as in life.

By contrast, the Concert by Leyster is another self-portrait, one which finds the artist singing to the accompaniment of two men: a violinist to her right and lutenist in a red outfit lifted from the Merry Company. In this painting it is the artist whose gaze carries aloft.  Unlike the Singing Girl of her teacher Hals, she does no need to look at the music book in her lap. What this charming and lively trio confirms is that Leyster would not have been able to capture the pleasures of music, both quiet and exuberant, alone or with others, had she not enjoyed its uplift herself. In this 400th anniversary of Leyster’s birth year, the Washington exhibit is a reminder that none surpassed her in capturing the sight of joyful sound. With the surety of great technical accomplishment and enlivened by an imaginative approach to music as a private and as a social pleasure, Leyster still allowed herself to get carried away.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com