Shooting Star:  Judith Leyster Shines

Judith Leyster adds a bouquet to Google in the Doodle for December 18th, 2022.

Just before Christmas a Google Doodle offered tribute to the Dutch Golden Age painter, Judith Leyster (1609-1660). Leyster fell into obscurity in the centuries after her death partly because she did not sign her work. In her lifetime she had enjoyed early fame, mentioned when she was just nineteen in a guide to her native Haarlem, a city rich in artists. Later, a history of Haarlem from 1647-8 praised her by punning on her name, calling her a “leading-star in art” (Leyster=lodestar, taken from the family brewery’s brand in Haarlem).

Leyster’s monogram, rediscovered in several paintings by the Dutch art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot only in 1893, overlays a curving J with the L and bisects the figure with the tail of a shooting star—a clever and confident logo.

That the artist revealed by this research was a woman has increasingly bolstered the value of, and interest in, the paintings and their creator—hence the recent Google Doodle in Leyster’s honor, which also serves as a not-so-covert advertisement for Google Arts & Culture.

Perhaps the teenage Leyster had been released from domestic oversight and parental plans for a more predictable female path because her father had gone bankrupt in 1624. Kept wives and daughters were a privilege of wealth. Working meant that Leyster would have the chance to develop as an artist and become a businesswoman in her own right as head of her own atelier.

Along the way to that independence Leyster may have studied with Haarlem’s preeminent painter Frans Hals, though if she did the only evidence is pictorial—the influence of his style on hers.

By 1633 she had become a member of the painters’ Guild of St. Luke, the first woman with a surviving body work to be admitted. Not only an influence but also a competitor, Hals poached a student from Leyster’s studio later in the 1630s. The guild ruling in her favor in the ensuing dispute.

Her St. Luke’s admission piece, a self-portrait, is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery in Washington and serves as the basis for last months’ doodle.

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1630, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Leyster captures herself while at work, turned away from her easel to look directly at us. On the easel is 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. Her right hand with its brush is placed exactly in the center of the picture: hands are not only as meaningful as faces for this artist, but the position and execution show that this is the crucial tool for executing what the dark eyes looking straight at the viewer themselves see. The fingers of the artist must be as talented and trained as those of the musician, indeed the brush could be a violin bow and has to be wielded with like musicality.

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 dark bodice. The lace of her wispy cuffs, thin wide ruff, and starched bonnet is all done in exquisite detail, all signaling artistic and financial success. 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.

Infrared reflectography of the picture revealed that the fiddler was painted over a previous image of a young woman, Leyster perhaps depicting herself depicting herself—a self-portrait of a self-portrait.

The violinist on the easel appears as one of the three youths in The Merry Trio that she painted one or two years earlier. (I saw the painting, now in a private collection, at the National Gallery in Washington in 2009 in an exhibition marking the quadricentennial of Leyster’s birth.)  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 here in full length, kicks up a leg as if drunk with his own music, the imaginary sound ornamented by alcohol. A somewhat plumper companion basks in the bright spirit of song and drink. A grinning child, her mother, and father enjoy the scene from a small nearby window.

Judith Leyster, The Merry Trio, c. 1629, private collection.

In Leyster’s work children not only listen to music, but as in Hals, make it. Leyster’s Young Flute Player from 1635 (once attributed, like several of her pictures, to Frans Hals) sits in a chair in front of a wall reflecting natural light coming from an unseen window.  On the wall behind hang a recorder and a violin with its bow wedged between the strings.  The background explores the hues of these wooden instruments against a gray-brown plaster wall whose texture felt 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. His coat is a greenish brown that perfectly modulated to the subdued tones around him. The subject is music and the composition musical in its harmony and counterpoint.

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.

Judith Leyster, The Young Flute Player, 1630s, National Museum, Stockholm.

Leyster’s 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 lavish not in color but materials and shape, the lutenist himself is clad in radiant clothes: a green-silver shirt with narrow strips glowing like mother-of-pearl and trousers with red and black swathes—almost as if he were wearing a Clifford Still canvas on his legs. The face is aglow with light and music. The immediacy of the unheard sound 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 also: these paintings and their music are always about themselves and something else, too, even if what that something else will remain a mystery.

Judith Leyster, Serenade, 1629, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In 1636 Leyster married the Haarlem painter Jan Molenaer, and the usual line is that she devoted herself increasingly to motherhood and domestic life, 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 “leading star” in that history of Haarlem cited above came in the second decade of her marriage and seems to confirm her continued fame and activity as a painter. The inventory of Molenaer’s estate after his death in 1668, eight years after that of his wife, lists many works by her, most now lost.

Molenaer’s Violinist from the early 1630s lacks the natural ease and fluency of his wife’s treatment of the subject. In the musical self-portrait from the year of his marriage to Leyster he wears cavalier’s cloak, his high-heeled shoes accented by an extravagant red bow. He tunes his lute, 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. 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. Maybe Judith Leyster put her expert hand to this painting and many others attributed to her husband, Dutch paintings produced by studios not single auteurs.

Jan Miense Molenaer, Self-Portrait, c. 1636/7, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Leyster takes herself far less seriously. The Concert is yet 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.

Judith Leyster, The Concert, 1631, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

Here it is the artist whose gaze is cast 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. With the surety of great technical accomplishment and enlivened by an imaginative approach to music as social pleasure, Leyster still allowed herself to get carried away.

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