In 1893, the Louvre bought a painting by the Dutch artist, Frans Hals. When it arrived and was uncrated, boy were they in for a surprise. The title of the painting was Carousing Couple. It was done in 1630. It looked like a Hals. It was a typical Hals subject. Even the Dutch themselves said it was a Hals. But upon closer inspection, down in the corner was a signature, and it didnít say "Frans Hals." It was a strange little thing, a J*L (the initials J L separated by a star). The seller got a nasty letter from the Louvre demanding an explanation. A few days later, it came in the form of another letter with an apology. It seems the work was by a student of Hals, and apparently an unofficial one at that. The J and L stood for Judith Leyster. The Louvre was aghast..."This was done by a woman?" How could the work of an unknown student, and a female one at that, have been mistaken all these years for a genuine Frans Hals?
It wasn't hard, really. Judith Leyster is a somewhat enigmatic artist at best. She was born in 1609 in Haarlem, Netherlands, the daughter of a weaver and brewery owner (strange combination) who died when she was fifteen. Forced at an early age to make her own way in the world, she followed her natural inclinations and became a painter. There's no doubt she and Frans Hals were good friends and if she was, indeed, his student, any instruction he gave would seem to have been "after hours." She may also have studied under Frans' brother, Dirck Hals. At any rate, by the time she was nineteen, she was a working artist in Haarlem and apparently a very successful one. In the 1633 (she would have been 24 at the time), she became the only female artist in the Haarlem painters guild; rubbing elbows with the likes of Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and de Grebber. She even took on three male students as apprentices. Her work is very much like Hals with the strong influence of the Utrecht School and their devotion to the dramatic, artificial lighting of Caravaggio. Her most famous work came from this period, Man Offering a Woman Money. One might even guess the work to be autobiographical.
In 1633, in joining the painter's guild, she met a fellow artist, Jan Miense Molenaer, also a follower of Hals. In digging back through the past and rediscovering Judith Leyster, art historians from the Louvre stumbled upon the kind of situation that keeps art historians awake at night. They found, not surprisingly one would think, that Leyster and her husband-to-be shared a studio, and not only that, shared the same props, some of the same models, and far worse (from their purist point of view at least) may even have worked on each other's paintings. In fact, in her 1633 painting, The Concert she used Molenaer as the model for the violinist and may have painted herself as the singer. One of Leyster's most charming works, A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel was done about this time too. In 1636, Judith and Jan were married; and either in following the custom of the time, or perhaps forced to do so by her wifely and motherly duties, Judith Leyster gave up painting. Of her 28 paintings known to exist, only one dates from after her marriage. Obscurity set in. Appearances count more than signatures, especially one as ambiguous as J*L. Hals, or her husband, Molenaer, got credit for her work. Only in the last hundred years, thanks to the Louvre, has the name, Leyster (Lode Star in Dutch), come to represent the career of one of the most remarkable artists of either sex in the long, colourful history of Dutch painting.