Judith Leyster vanished from art history for over two centuries, thanks to the attribution of her works either to Franz Hals or to her husband, Jan Molenaer – this was despite her signature on the paintings. The inventory of her paintings after her death listed her as ‘wife of Molenaer’, making it easy to ease both her and her name entirely.
Leyster was, however, known as an artist in her lifetime. She was a member of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, and took on apprentices. Most of ther work seems to be from the time before her marriage and the birth of her children, although a few pieces survive from afterwards. The painting here, ‘La Joyeuse Compagnie’ has a chequered history. Sold originally as a work of Hals, it was discovered in 1893 to be indeed by Leyster, igniting a fraught court case. That is was not Hals’ work was deemed more important than its evident quality: as Germaine Greer says, ‘at no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equalling Hals at his best, had been discovered’.
The musicians in Leyster’s painting are clearly secular; today’s composer, Caterina Assandra, comes from the opposite world of the cloistered sacred. She was a musician first, studying counterpoint with Benedetto Re at Pavia Cathedral, and became known as an organist and composer. In 1609 she entered the Benedictine community of St Agata in Lombardy, continuing to compose motets. Her style ranged from traditional to more innovative, such as the work here, ‘Duo Seraphim’, in a version for solo voice. For some reason, the ethereal suspension always brings to mind the Cantatrice in ‘The Nun’s Story’, a 'famed Georgian scholar' who would 'pause near a novice to listen to her breath control, or perhaps to some forbidden excess of feeling that escaped from the young throat.' How could one avoid that forbidden excess in music such as this?