Judith Leyster’s self-portrait in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (fig. 1) is one of the most celebrated images of the Dutch Golden Age. Renowned both for its pictorial accomplishment and its standing as one of the greatest of all female self-portraits, it has been discussed in more than 100 scholarly publications, and included in more than a dozen major exhibitions over the course of the last century.
This long lost work - a second self-portrait by Judith Leyster, painted some twenty years after the one in Washington, represents a sensational rediscovery. The Washington picture is generally dated to circa 1630-1633, at about the time when Leyster became a member of the Haarlem painters’ guild, but before her marriage, which took place in 1636. It shows Leyster as a virtuoso artist at the peak of her early success, dressed in colourful, showy clothing. The present work, by contrast, shows the artist in sober attire, as befits the respectable standing of a married woman, by now the mother of five children. While the jaunty colours of her earlier dress have been replaced with a sombre black gown, and the ostentatious fraise collar with a more modest one, these new items of clothing are visibly of fine quality, redolent of prosperity. As she did in her youth, Leyster shows herself to be a gentlewoman as much as an artist, setting to the messy task of making art with poise and sprezzatura, either certain that not a drop of paint will stray from its appointed ends to sully her finery – or conversely that she has so little regard for the costly materials, that she would not mind if it did. The choice of black clothing allows her to show of her artistic virtuosity – the folds and shadows in her black dress, particularly the sleeve, are subtly and beautifully painted. The challenging technique of painting in tones of black was highly regarded in the seventeenth century, and in Haarlem it was particularly associated with the style of Frans Hals, who may have been Leyster’s teacher.
We are grateful to Dr. Frima Fox Hofrichter for confirming the attribution to Judith Leyster on the basis of first-hand inspection before cleaning. Hofrichter points out that this painting matches the description of a work recorded in the post-mortem inventory of the household possessions of Leyster’s husband, the painter Jan Miense Molenaer, compiled on 10 October 1668. As Hofrichter wrote in her seminal 1989 monograph on Leyster: ‘this record, although prepared eight years after Judith Leyster’s death, gives some sense of the environment in which she lived and worked for twenty-five years’ (op. cit., p. 87). The portrait is listed under the first section of the inventory, ‘In’t voorhuijs: schilderije’, (‘In the front rooms: paintings’), as ‘An oval portrait of the wife of the deceased’ (ibid., p. 88, no. 22). In her annotation, Hofrichter addressed the ambiguity of the wording: ‘It is possible that this is a portrait by Leyster, but is more likely one of her, as there are various other family portraits in the room’ (ibid., p. 102 note 4). In fact, as the discovery of this work shows, it is both – a work by Leyster, and of her. The fact that it always remained in the private collection of the artist and her husband points to its function as something personal, never intended for show or for sale. As such, it provides a striking contrast with the flamboyant self-image presented in the Washington portrait, as Leyster appears to have embarked here on a much more intimate and truthful portrayal of herself.
The artist may have made the panel herself from an off-cut from a larger work. Research made during a recent restoration of the picture has shown conclusively that its oval shape is original and was created using a system of careful measurements. X-radiography (fig. 2) reveals that two small punctures were made in the surface of the wood, and subsequently filled. There are also traces of two partial circles that were traced on the wood with a compass, with the two punctures as centres. Two smaller marks along the vertical axis, nearer the top and bottom of the panel, are harder to spot, but can be seen on the radiograph. It can be deduced, from studying these marks, that the ellipse was constructed by the ‘pins and string’ method: two particles – their centres a distance apart – are first drawn on the panel, marking out the curves of the top and bottom. Two other marks are made along the long axis between the centres of the two circles, equidistant from the overall centre of the panel. Pins are placed in these points, and string between them is stretched to trace the sides of the ellipse – pulling the string tight with a stylus allows the outer part of the ellipse to be drawn.
A number of pentiments have been observed, most significantly in the position of her lowered arm, which seems to have been modified at a late stage to fill the lower portion of the oval. The shape Leyster chose for this self-portrait was one traditionally used for mirrors, and it may be that the artist was interested in replicating some degree of the distortion caused by a convex glass, not unlike the more pronounced effect captured by Parmigianino in his much earlier Self-portrait in a convex mirror of circa 1524 (fig. 3; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). The paint is handled with the controlled freedom characteristic of Leyster and Frans Hals. Her proper right hand (as reflected in the mirror) is particularly freely painted, and almost seems to fuse around her brush, in an effect which anticipates one of the greatest of all self-portraits, Rembrandt’s Self-portrait with two circles (c. 1665-69; London, Kenwood House).