(b. 1609, Haarlem, d. 1660, Heemstede)

The Proposition

Oil on panel, 31 x 24 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Although a number of works have been ascribed to Leyster since her rediscovery in the 1890s, the number attributable to her is small. Apart from a few Halsian portraits, a single still-life, and one or two watercolours of tulips, they are genre paintings. The earliest secure ones dated 1629 clearly show that from the start Frans Hals was a principal source of her themes and style. But Leyster did not work consistently in Frans Hals's style. In the early thirties she began to make pictures of 'modern figures' that have a communality with young Miense Molenaer's early works. They obviously had contact before their marriage; at this time they shared studio props and models. But more important for her than the early efforts of Molenaer were Dirk Hals's small daylight and night scenes in interiors. She learned as much from Dirk as from Frans Hals's motifs and style.

An intriguing painting of these years that is closely related to Dirk in composition and technique offers a view of an old man displaying coins to a dramatically lit young woman sewing by lamplight. His hand resting on her shoulder suggests that he is not offering payment for her labour as a seamstress. Is he making a proposition for sex which she virtuously ignores? This interpretation has been offered, and with good reason. The theme had been used by northern artists since the Renaissance, and was not rare with the Caravaggisti. To be sure, Leyster's young woman has nothing in common with the readily seductable recipients of offers of purchased love depicted by earlier artists. Leyster's young woman steadfastly remains occupied with her sewing, a model of domestic virtue. If this reading of the subject is accepted, the painting can be viewed as Leyster's critical response to the salacious treatment of the subject by male artists who demean woman by representing them as sex objects exploited by men. It also would qualify the picture as Leyster's only painting that treats a feminist issue. However, it also has been argued that the painting is not a precursor of feminist ideology, but a depiction of a Dutch tradition of offering a woman coins as an invitation to court, a subject that is also unambiguously represented by Leyster's predecessors and contemporaries. Is Leyster's old man a dishonourable seducer or a respectable suitor? The interpretation is open to question.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.