Judith Leyster 1609-1660

Judith Leyster self portrait


WASHINGTON — Think of “Judith Leyster, 1609-1660” at the National Gallery of Art as a 400-year-old answer to the art historian Linda Nochlin’s famous question “Why have there been no great women artists?”

Leyster wasn’t a great artist — not when compared to Rembrandt, Vermeer and other select contemporaries — but she was very, very good. And before her marriage to the painter Jan Miense Molenaer she managed to have an independent career, no small feat for a 17th-century woman.

After training with accomplished painters thought to include Frans Hals, Leyster earned membership in the prestigious Guild of St. Luke in Haarlem. The Dutch artist had her own workshop, her own students and her own style, one that combined the spontaneity of Hals’s brushwork with a Caravaggist chiaroscuro.

What happened next is a familiar story: She married, had children and painted less and less frequently. Her art, unlike her husband’s, fell off the radar. Many of her paintings were attributed to other artists and weren’t properly identified until the 1890s.

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