Great Painting: The Proposition by Judith Leyster

The seventeenth century was a golden age for Dutch art. During this time period, the Dutch Republic enjoyed a period of unparalleled economic success that was paired with a flourishing of science, art, and culture. Many artists-including the famous Rembrandt van Rijn-made their reputations during this time, including an unprecedented number of female artists. Although female artists were limited by social expectations, many found success in painting the still lifes and domestic, everyday scenes that were popular during the Golden Age.

Judith Leyster was one such artist. For many years, art historians misattributed Leyster’s paintings to her contemporary Frans Hals, a well-known artist in his own right. However, Leyster has since been recognized for her incisive paintings of everyday life and her expressive style.

While Leyster produced a large oeuvre throughout her career, one of her most ambiguous and daring paintings is entitled The Proposition. The piece depicts a fraught interaction between a man and a woman. Here, we see a woman busily working on her needlework as a man in a fur hat leers over her while offering the woman a fistful of coins. There is a sense that some sort of indecent and, perhaps, ominous transaction is about to take place. Leyster’s compositional choices and use of lighting clearly signals the man’s bad intentions. The painting lays out a clear choice for the hardworking woman, she can either continue her work-the path associated with virtue-or abandon her sewing for the man’s attentions, a choice associated with vice.

The Proposition reflects the morality of Leyster’s age. Like all art, The Proposition has a message behind its obvious subject. During the Golden Age, art was often used to reinforce the values and norms that were seen as the building blocks of a prosperous society. Living a moral life was understood to be an essential component of social order and economic success, making it essential for artists to reinforce the traditional values associated with family life. As art historian Saskia Beranek notes, “Secular genre scenes are often perceived as having a role to play in the moral education of the populace, either in presenting an image of ideal behavior or the consequences of bad behavior.” Of The Proposition in particular, she observes, “In Leyster’s painting, the woman becomes an icon of domesticity, working diligently in the cold, unlit room.”

While the moralistic aspect of the piece adds an important layer to its interpretation, it is far from the only way to view the painting. The tensions within the painting explore the challenges and pressures that women face while also examining gender dynamics in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic.

Originally published at on September 10, 2020.



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