Judith Leyster
(Haarlem 1609–1660 Heemstede)


Merry Company 


oil on canvas
74.5 x 63.2 cm. (29.3 x 24.9 in.)
c. 1629

“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.

Born in Haarlem in 1609, Judith Leyster got her last name from her father’s brewery, called the “Leyster”, meaning leading star. The artist is known to have proudly used this pun in her monogram, formed by her two initials and a shooting star. Her early training remains an area of debate, yet she was described by Samuel Ampzing (1590–1632) in his book on Haarlem from 1628, when she was just 19 years old, as a painter with ‘good and keen insight’, who also suggested that she studied with Pieter de Grebber (1573–1643).1 That same year, Leyster’s family moved to Utrecht, where she was influenced by the Utrecht Caravaggisti Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) and Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629). Upon Leyster’s return to Haarlem, she then introduced the typical Caravaggist nocturnal scenes to her native city.2 No records attest that Leyster studied with her fellow townsman Frans Hals (1582-1666), yet the similarity in style and subjects indicate that she was one of his closest and most successful followers.3



It was in the early years of her career that she painted this Merry Company, dated c. 1629 based on the similar painting technique, lighting and figure type in the dated Serenade of 1629 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).4 Merry Company is an excellent example of Leyster’s painting technique and her specialisation as a genre painter, which clearly solidified early on. She emulated her contemporaries Rembrandt (1606–1669) and Hals by painting her compositions straight onto the canvas instead of depending on preliminary drawings. Even though Leyster built on Hals’ innovations of loose painting technique, she did incorporate her own characteristics. This Merry Company may have been a pendant to The Last Drop (1639, Philadelphia Museum of Art). The paintings correspond in theme and compositional design; Merry Company shows the light-hearted mirth achieved by drinking, whereas the morose atmosphere of The Last Drop serves a warning for excessive indulgence. The theatricality and animation of Merry Company is enforced by the costumes, which are reminiscent of the types found in commedia dell’arte, a popular form of improvisation theatre at the time.5 Leyster included the figure of the Fiddler in her Self-Portrait from 1633, indicating that Merry Company had particular significance for the artist.


In 1633, she became the first woman in the Western world to be titled ‘master painter’ at a painter’s guild, allowing her to set up a workshop and sell her paintings independently.6 She was remarkably successful for a woman of that time, and in 1635 she was recorded as having three students in her workshop. The year after, she married fellow painter Jan Miense Molenaer (c. 1609/1610–1668). They had five children and this domestic situation accounts for Leyster’s drastically reduced painterly output. Leyster died in 1660 and was outlived by her husband. Many of Leyster’s paintings were recorded in Molenaer’s inventory after his death in 1668.7 Like many women artists, her work often suffered the fate of being attributed to male contemporaries, such as Hals, and especially Molenaer, not only because of similarity in style, but also because they shared studio props and models.8 


1. […] goed en kloek verstand,’ in Samuel Ampzing, Geschiedenis en Lof van de stad Haarlem (Haarlem, 1628), 370.
2. Frima Hofrichter, “Leyster, Judith,” last modified July 30, 2004, accessed November 16, 2020, on https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T050810.
3. Arthur K. Wheelock, “Judith Leyster,” last modified April 2014, accessed November 12, 2020, on https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1485.html#biography.
4. Frima Hofrichter, Judith Leyster, a Woman Painting in Holland’s Golden Age, (Doornspijk: Davaco, 1989), 41.
5. Ibid., 41–42.
6. Anna Tummers, Judith Leyster: De eerste vrouw die meester-schilder werd / Judith Leyster: The first woman to become a master painter, exhibition booklet (Haarlem: Frans Hals Museum, 2009), 3.
7. Hofrichter, “Leyster, Judith.”
8. Wheelock, “Judith Leyster.”