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Essay – Judith Leyster – Still life with a basket of fruit

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Essay - Judith Leyster - Still life with a basket of fruit

This is the only extant still life by the Haarlem painter Judith Leyster – which makes it a remarkable work within her small oeuvre. Leyster belonged to a very small and select group of female artists working in the seventeenth century whose reputation has endured to this day. Although she lived an unusual, fascinating life, she was not discussed by contemporary or eighteenth-century artists’ biographers. Her name is mentioned, however, in Samuel Ampzing’s Beschrijvinge ende Lof der stad Haerlem in Holland, published in 1628. From this text we may conclude that Leyster served an apprenticeship with Frans Pietersz de Grebber (1573-1649), who also had an artist daughter. Leyster enrolled in the St Luke’s Guild in Haarlem in 1633. Stylistic resemblances suggest that she also probably worked in the studio of Frans Hals (cat. no. 21) before then, although there is no hard evidence for it. Her guild membership enabled Leyster to operate as an independent artist with her own studio and pupils. She signed with a highly original monogram: the letters J and L with a star shooting to the right, an allusion to her name, Leyster [lode star]. This unusual monogram can be seen in the work Still Life with a Basket of Fruit. In 1636 Judith Leyster married the artist Jan Miense Molenaer (cat. no. 42).1

            Only one dated work by Leyster is known from the period following her marriage: a tulip painted in watercolour in 1643.2 She also produced illustrations for a ‘tulip book’ – a book used by tulip dealers to help market their precious bulbs.3 But Leyster is chiefly known for her genre paintings, in which her loose, expressive style of painting and cheerful figures earned her a certain fame in her lifetime (see cat. no. 22, fig. 2). Still, like many other seventeenth-century artists who specialised in a particular genre, Leyster sometimes departed from this subject matter. The only surviving oil painting exemplifying her artistic ‘digressions’ is this Still Life with a Basket of Fruit from around 1635-1640. Old sources reveal that Leyster must have painted other still lifes besides this one. For instance, the probate inventory that was drawn up after the death of Jan Miense Molenaer includes ‘Een blompotje van Juffr. Molenaer’ (‘a flower-pot by Madame Molenaer’). Leyster also painted a breakfast piece or ontbijtje, as is clear from the description of a painting that was auctioned in Amsterdam in 1781.4 But nothing else is known of these works to date, which gives Still Life with a Basket of Fruit a special place with her extant oeuvre.5

The still life consists of a wicker basket, placed at an angle, which is full of fruit – different kinds of apples and white and black grapes. In front of the basket are two more apples and a bunch of grapes that hangs over the edge of the table, heightening the illusionistic effect. The yellow of the apples in the middle of the composition immediately strikes the eye and makes a fine contrast with the blue, green and grey tones that Leyster has used for the rest of the image. The table is laid with a blue cloth. This is a feature of other works by this artist, such as The Merry Drinker (1629), in which a jolly man holding an empty beer tankard sits at a table with the same cloth (fig. 1). Arranged on the table are a fire-pan with red-hot coals, a pipe, and some tobacco, items that in themselves constitute a simple still life. Here too, Leyster has experimented with the effect of objects protruding from, or hanging over, the edge of the table.

The effort to produce an image that is true to life and produces a convincing illusion – one of the key properties of a successful still life – is also exemplified by the pewter wine flagon and the half-filled roemer. Leyster has rendered the highlights on the surface of the flagon with meticulous care – the fruit too is reflected in its surface.6 Leyster has also captured the roemer skilfully, even depicting the light reflected by the glass on the tablecloth.7 The background is painted simply in green and grey tones. This is common in the rest of her oeuvre, but it also recalls the background in the works of Haarlem still-life painters such as Pieter Claesz (1597/98-1661). Indeed, Leyster’s source of inspiration for Still Life with a Basket of Fruit should be sought in Claesz’s oeuvre, which contains similar images.8 Even so, Leyster’s still life cannot be considered on a par with the classical, celebrated still-life paintings produced by Claesz or the other great master of this genre, Willem Heda (c.1596-1680). For while these artists specialised in still lifes, Judith Leyster’s specialism always remained the lively genre painting. However, with Still Life with a Basket of Fruit she successfully extended her repertoire to this popular branch of painting.