It’s not hard to imagine having a good old knees up with Judith Leyster, even 405 years after her birth. After all, the people in her paintings still look like they’re having a good time – laughing, singing, playing cards and, above all, smiling.
But smiling, in Leyster’s paintings, doesn’t always signify good clean fun.
Take, for instance, her mid-1630’s painting, which shows two children with a cat and an eel. On the face of it, this is just a scene from the day in the life of two more-than-usually-rosy-cheeked youngsters.
On closer inspection, though, we’re actually faced with the moment before the fun stops. The boy has the cat trapped in his right arm, withholding the eel he’s used for bait in his left. At the same time, the girl pulls the cat’s tail with her left hand. Their gazes slide away, momentarily distracted. And we, denizens of the Internet age with hundred of cat video viewings under our belts, can already by the cat’s wide eyes and splayed paws, that things will end badly here. Viewers in the 1630’s might not have had the Internet, but they would have known the Dutch saying ‘He who plays with the cat gets scratched.’ Leytster’s painting is less a slice of life, and more a good-hearted warning.
Smiling, particularly grinning, isn’t common in the history of art, and when a subject does appear with a smile on, it’s usually for a reason. Ancient statues sported the Archaic smile to enlivened their stone features.
In later Christian works, smiles could be expressive of joy or serenity in religion. In some cases – most famously in the Mona Lisa – the smile is used to add a complexity to the subject’s psychology.
However, the grin, exposing the teeth and contorting the features, often appears in scenes that are more intimate and less controlled. Unlike the mysterious and intriguing smilers, grinners in paintings are often sexually aggressive, gloating, drunk or otherwise mischievous creatures.
Leyster’s paintings show a real eye for the carouser, and these fun-loving subjects tend to be marked by broad grins.
Paintings such as The Last Drop use the grin to show a sort of good-natured abandon. As is the case with the painting of the children, the grin is the gravitational centre for impending accidents. The tankard, which in fact may not be empty, comes dangerously close to tipping out its remaining contents; the flamboyant red feather in the hat dips towards the open coals on the table.
In her self portrait, Leyster shows herself turning away from her painting of a violinist, who laughs open mouthed. Her own expression is almost a grin itself, but not quite. It’s an intimate and easy image of the artist, but by showing herself at once at ease at the centre of a technically complex scene, Leyster shows off a sort of effortless mastery of her craft.
So it’s worth remembering Leyster on her birthday. Whether she was more the partier or the painter in her life, she definitely would have been up for a laugh.