Three Remarkable Female Artists in Dutch Art History

Artist(s) in Focus, Top Lists

March 25, 2021

Any relevant art history survey underlines the legacy of the Dutch Golden Age and the masterpieces produced by legendary artists such as Rembrandt or Vermeer. The stable economic state of affairs in The Netherlands from 1588 to 1672 enabled the artists to bloom and perfect themselves to the full extent. The ones that we are familiar with are mostly men, but were there any notable women artists?

At that time, Dutch women were expected to run the household and conduct domestic tasks while making sure that the home is a matter of positive representation in public space. Despite the fact that the Calvinist ideals insisted on equality between man and wife, the reality was male-dominated. Nevertheless, society still allowed women to achieve respectable careers, proven by the presence of a few female artists who made quite the name of themselves, even then.

To revisit and alter the historical canon, the Rijksmuseum recently started an important research program on women’s contribution to Dutch cultural history, as well as their presence in their own collection. The aim of this initiative is to establish the exact number of female artists, explore their oeuvres and collect the absent information about their production, but also to survey the activity of female collectors, patrons, donors, and curators.

Taco Dibbits, Director of the Rijksmuseum, said:

Women play an important role in the cultural history of the Netherlands. Until now, however, women have been missing from the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour. It is crucial that we keep examining and enriching Rijksmuseum’s centuries-old collection from new perspectives. We do so through both research and presentation. By asking new questions and studying a range of sources and objects, we can provide a more complete story of the Netherlands. 

At this point, The Netherlands is still in Covid-19 lockdown, but the Rijksmuseum announced the three major works by female artists will be displayed in the Gallery of Honour for the first time in history. The visitors will have a unique chance to experience Judith Leyster’s painting The Serenade (1629); Memorial Portrait of Moses ter Borch (1667/1669) by Gesina ter Borch and her brother Gerard ter Borch; and Rachel Ruysch’s Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase (c. 1690 - c. 1720) - on permanent display alongside other 17th-century works by Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, and Rembrandt.

So, who are these three remarkable female Dutch artists?

Featured images: Gallery of Honour, Rijksmuseum. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Judith Jans Leyster

Judith Jans Leyster (1609 - 1660) was a painter of the Dutch Golden Age saluted for her genre works, portraits, and still lifes. One of the presumptions is that she started a painting career to support the family after her father's bankruptcy. She most probably learned to paint from Frans Pietersz de Grebber, who ran an established workshop in Haarlem in the 1620s.

By 1633, Leyster was a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke; whether she was the first woman to be part of the guild remains a matter of dispute among the scholars. During the 17th century, female artists may have been admitted to this guild, however, their medium of choice was often not listed, making it hard to determine the exact ratio of women involved, whether they worked by themselves or were included in guilds for continuing the work of their deceased husbands.

Leyster mastered the portrait-like genre scenes, typically of one to three figures, many of them children, and others men with drink, but also scenes of women at home, often with a candle- or lamplight. Throughout her career, the artist produced only one known history painting: David with the head of Goliath from 1633, in her typical portrait style.

During her lifetime Leyster was well-known and respected by contemporaries, but her work eventually became forgotten after her death. For two centuries, the artist’s paintings were attributed to Frans Hals and her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, until she was rediscovered in 1893.

Featured image: Judith Leyster - The Serenade, 1629. Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Gesina ter Borch

Gesina ter Borch (1633 – 1690) was an established watercolorist and draftswoman during the Dutch Golden Age, celebrated for works that captured her observations of family life, current events, and fashionable people. She learned how to paint draw and paint from her father, Gerard ter Borch the Elder, who was a painter himself. Gesina was supported by her half-brother Gerard ter Borch II, although she suffered greatly after the loss of her younger brother, Moses.

She lived her whole life on the Sassenstraat in Zwolle, never got married, but was very successful. Gesina also collected love poetry, made the accompanying illustrations, and some albums of her work even included pieces thematizing songs about love.

Featured image: Gesina ter Borch (1633-1690) and her brother Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681) - Memorial Portrait of Moses ter Borch, 1667/1669. Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Rachel Ruysch

Rachel Ruysch (1664 - 1750) was probably the best known of the three women. This Hague-born figure gained fame for the astounding still lifes, primarily depictions of flowers. Inspired by her father’s scientific collection of animal skeletons, mineral and botany samples, young Ruysch started developing drawing skills that eventually turned into pure mastery.

The artist apprenticed to Willem van Aelst, a prominent flower painter in Amsterdam at the time, where she learned not only the painting technique but also how to arrange a bouquet in a vase for a spontaneous effect.

Ruysch was married to another painter, Juriaen Pool, and was active as an artist throughout her marriage and adult life. No data indicate she was a member of the Amsterdam Guild of Saint Luke, but by 1699 Ruysch and her family moved to The Hague, where she became a member of the Confrerie Pictura as their first female member. In 1701, she and her husband became members of The Hague Painter's Guild.

Throughout her six-decades-long career, Ruysch produced hundreds of paintings and had quite a reputation as an extremely gifted and meticulous painter that stylistically fitted the Rococo movement.

Featured image: Rachel Ruysch - Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase (c. 1690 - c. 1720). Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum.