‘There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called a true leading star in art, as her name indicates’
(Theodorus Schrevelius, Harlemias, ofte, om beter te seggen, de eerst stichtinghe der stad Haerlem, Haarlem, 1648, pp. 384–85)
This witty and engaging scene of three young revellers is a rare work by the greatest female artist of the Dutch Golden Age, Judith Leyster. Painted circa 1629, when Leyster was just twenty years old, it demonstrates both her precocious talent and her ambitions as a painter of modern genre subjects, a field dominated by her male contemporaries, notably Frans Hals. This painting has featured in all the key Leyster exhibitions and was selected most recently for the 2009 exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem and the National Gallery of Art in Washington to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Leyster’s birth. Also included in that exhibition was Leyster’s celebrated Self-Portrait, circa 1633 (fig. 1; Washington, National Gallery of Art), in which Leyster chose to depict herself in front of a canvas displaying the fiddler from this painting. Merry Company is the most important work by the artist to be sold at auction in a generation.
Anna Tummers, in a booklet published to accompany the 2009 focus exhibition at the Frans Hals Museum, stressed Leyster’s status as the only seventeenth-century woman to paint modern figure pieces; the only seventeenth-century female to master a loose painting style; and the first woman in the Western world to be officially recognised by a painters’ guild as a ‘master painter’, in 1633, which gave her the right to have her own workshop, take on pupils and sell her paintings independently (Judith Leyster: De eerste vrouw di meester-schilder werd / Judith Leyster: The first woman to become a master painter, exhibition booklet, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, 2009, p. 3). As early as 1628, the minister, poet and historian Samuel Ampzing noted, in his ode to Haarlem, that Leyster painted with ‘good and keen insight’ (‘met goed en kloek verstand’, S. Ampzing, Geschiedenis en Lof van de stad Haarlem, Haarlem, 1628, p. 370). Three years after being recognised as a ‘master painter’, Leyster married the Haarlem genre and portrait painter, Jan Miense Molenaer (c. 1610-1668), and her output reduced dramatically (she gave birth to five children between 1637 and 1650; the distinctive fiddle in this work recurs in paintings by Molenaer, suggesting that it was a shared studio prop). However, the writer and poet Theodorus Schrevelius still singled her out for special praise as a true ‘ley-sterr’, leading star, in 1648 (op. cit.). Given her remarkable talents and achievements, and the fact that these were clearly recognised during her lifetime, it is extraordinary that her work should then have fallen into obscurity until the late nineteenth-century when her monogram was discovered on a painting of a Carousing Couple (1630; Paris, Louvre), which had been ascribed to Frans Hals for over two hundred years. One possible explanation for Leyster's name being 'lost' is that in her husband's posthumous inventory, which followed her own death by eight years, her paintings were listed as by 'Mrs. Molenaer'. Discoveries of other works by Leyster, many previously attributed to Hals, or as simply anonymous, soon followed. Merry Company was believed to be a collaborative work between Leyster and Hals when it was exhibited at the Guildhall in London in 1903, but is now recognised as a fully autograph work by Leyster.
Hofrichter (op. cit., 1989, p. 41) dated Merry Company to circa 1629 based on similarities in the figure type, lighting and painting technique to Leyster’s dated painting of the Serenade in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. She suggested that the costumes of the three principal figures were vaguely reminiscent of the types found in commedia dell’arte, particularly the character of Il Capitano. Cynthia Kortenhorst-von Bogendorf Rupprath (in Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World, exhibition catalogue, Haarlem, 1993, p. 150) observed that baggy clothes were also a special feature of the zanni, or clowns, of Italian comedy. While Italian troupes made only sporadic appearances in the Netherlands in the first half of the seventeenth century, the likely source for artists like Leyster was probably Callot’s Balli di Sfessania, a series of twenty-four etchings from circa 1622 illustrating characters from the commedia, in which the zanni are nearly always shown dancing and merry making (fig. 2; Jacques Callot, Franca Trippa and Fritellino, c. 1622, from the series Balli di Sfessania, etching, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Zanni were typically dressed in white, however, so, following Peter Sutton’s earlier suggestion (Masters of Seventeenth- Century Dutch Genre Painting, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia, Berlin and London, 1984, p. 235), Rupprath concluded that the bright costumes of Leyster’s figures were more indicative of carnival revellers (op. cit.). Indeed, commedia dell’arte-type costumes were already incorporated in traditional carnival dress in the sixteenth century. The figure in blue to the right in this painting plays a fiddle, the type usually associated with dancing in contemporary painting, and dancing was an important part of Shrovetide festivities in the lead up to Lent. In her depiction of carnival celebrants, Rupprath suggested (ibid., p. 152) that Leyster may have been influenced by Frans Hals’s painting of Shrovetide Revellers of 1616 (fig. 3; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), highlighting in particular Leyster’s adaption of a Halsian motif in the central figure in the background of the present painting, who gestures to the left, while looking to the right, mimicking the pose of the central figure in Hals’s composition. This figure in Leyster’s painting draws the viewer’s attention to the group of laughing spectators peering through an open window to the left of the composition – a man, woman and child. While the motif of figures peering into a scene became popular in the mid-seventeenth century, in particular in the work of Jan Steen and Jan Miense Molenaer, it was still relatively rare in the early decades of the seventeenth century.
Merry Company may originally have formed a pendant with Leyster’s monogrammed The Last Drop (fig. 4; Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Hofrichter, op. cit., 1989, pp. 41-2). These paintings correspond in theme and compositional design, the figures are of a similar type and dress, and even the floorboards in each might indicate a continuous space. These paintings also share the same earliest known provenance, both belonging to Sir George Donaldson in London in the early twentieth century. The current disparity in size between the two pictures indicates that Merry Company has been reduced slightly in format. While the spirit of Merry Company, a daylight scene, is animated and the mood good-humoured, The Last Drop, a night scene, is rather morose and the mood somewhat debauched, with the ominous figure of a skeleton brandishing a skull and an hourglass in the background making clear the moral message of the evil effects of excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption. The contrast of daylight and night-time scenes, and the theme of early light-hearted and later depraved stages of drinking, suggest a cause-and-effect reading of the pair. However, Rupprath suggested (op. cit., p. 154) that the foolishness of revelry is already hinted at in the Merry Company by the inclusion of the figure in red with his plumed beret, an accessory traditionally associated with a foolish person; the Shrovetide was in fact known as the Fool’s Festival (Sebastian Brant’s, Ship of Fools, Basel, 1494). Despite these moral undertones, the dominant theme of this work remains one of convivial mirth.
Merry Company showcases Leyster’s signature painterly technique. Similarly to Hals and Rembrandt, Leyster sketched her compositions directly on to the panel or canvas with her brush, rather than relying on preliminary drawings. This would often result in pentimenti, note for instance the slight readjustments of the middle figure’s left leg in this painting. Anna Tummers was keen to distinguish Leyster’s loose painting technique from Hals’s approach, however, arguing that: ‘while she did build on innovations that Hals had introduced into painting, she did so in her own way’ (op. cit., p. 7). While Hals painted in a broad and economic manner, often letting the ground show through in areas, Leyster, in contrast, usually applied areas of shade over lighter passages, or combined them wet-in-wet. This can be seen in the modelling of the drapery in this painting, especially in the folds in the red and blue garments.
Merry Company clearly held particular significance for Leyster, since she selected the figure of the fiddler to adorn the easel in her celebrated Self- Portrait, circa 1633, which Hofrichter believes was Leyster’s presentation piece to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke (op. cit., 1983, p. 106): it shows the young artist in a relaxed and confident pose, turning and leaning on the back of her chair, addressing the viewer directly with her mouth open slightly as if in conversation (fig. 1). Infrared imaging of the Self-Portrait revealed that Leyster had originally painted a portrait of a woman or girl on the canvas before her, but must have changed her mind at some point and replaced this with the fiddler from Merry Company. Raupp speculated that the fiddler might relate to the sense of hearing, or be a personification of the sanguine temperament, or indeed a personification of joy, more specifically the joy of artistic creation (H.J. Raupp, Untersuchungen zu Künstlerbildnis und Künstlerdarstellung in den Niederlanden im 17. Jahrhundert, Hildesheim, 1984, pp. 346–47). Hofrichter believes that Leyster chose to include the fiddler in order to highlight and promote her expertise both as a genre painter and as a portraitist, thus demonstrating the versatility of her skills (op. cit., 1983, p. 107). This idea is supported by Wheelock (www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.37003.html#entry), who added that Leyster may have selected the fiddler because of the popular success of the Merry Company from which this figure derived, as attested by the numerous copies and variants of the composition that survive: notably a copy at Goodwood House, Chichester, National Trust; a loose copy sold Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 14 December 1954, lot 36; and a variant with Barbara Sweigart, Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania. Wheelock further proposed that by juxtaposing the bow of the violin player with her own paintbrush, Leyster was reminding the view that: ‘just as the musician has mastered his instrument to produce music, so too has she mastered the tools of her profession to create equally compelling art’ (ibid.). Hofrichter and Rupprath both believe that the fact that this particular figure is introduced into a self-portrait – by definition, a very personal painting – suggests that it held some personal significance for Leyster’ (Hofrichter, op. cit., 1983, p. 107, footnote 3; and Rupprath, op. cit., p. 165). Building on her theory that Merry Company held subtle allusions to foolishness that in turn could lead to debauchery, Rupprath concluded that Leyster’s decision to include this figure in her Self-portrait may have been a reference to a passage in Karel van Mander’s Het Schilder-Boeck of 1604, which echoes a popular Dutch proverb: ‘the more a painter he becomes, the wilder he gets’ (Hoe schilder, hoe wilder). Whatever the intended meaning of Merry Company, or the significance of its inclusion in the Washington Self-Portrait, it is a tour-de-force in painting and clearly demonstrates that Leyster could compete in the male dominant arena of modern genre painting.
We are grateful to Dr. Frima Fox Hofrichter for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.