Birthdays / Dutch / Painting

Something to Smile About: Judith Leyster Turns 405

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.

Carousing Couple, 1630, Oil on canvas, 68 x 54 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Carousing Couple, 1630, Oil on canvas, 68 x 54 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

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.

A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel, Oil on wood, 59 x 49 cm, National Gallery, London

A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel, Oil on wood, 59 x 49 cm, National Gallery, London

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.

Moschophoros, or Calf-bearer, ca. 570 BC - ca. 560 BC, Athens, Acropolis Museum

Moschophoros, or Calf-bearer, ca. 570 BC – ca. 560 BC, Athens, Acropolis Museum

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.

Antonello da Messina’s ‘Virgin Annunciate’ (c1476), Palermo, Palazzo Abatellis

Antonello da Messina’s ‘Virgin Annunciate’ (c1476), Palermo, Palazzo Abatellis

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.

Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia 1602-03, Oil on canvas, 156 x 113 cm Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia 1602-03, Oil on canvas, 156 x 113 cm Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Leyster’s paintings show a real eye for the carouser, and these fun-loving subjects tend to be marked by broad grins.

The Last Drop, 1629, Oil on canvas, 89 x 85 cm, Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem

The Last Drop, 1629, Oil on canvas, 89 x 85 cm, Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem

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.

Self-Portrait, c. 1635, Oil on canvas, 72.3 x 65.3 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Self-Portrait, c. 1635, Oil on canvas, 72.3 x 65.3 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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.

2 thoughts on “Something to Smile About: Judith Leyster Turns 405

  1. Pingback: Something to Smile About: Judith Leyster Turns 405 | texthistory

  2. Good one. Interesting discussion about smiling. Most all religious works past and present with few exceptions show NO SMILING. Somberness implies there were no jokes…back then…which is not the case. God has a sense of humor.

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