Victor Hugo said, “The harder the life gets, the more laughter it needs.” Dutch painter Judith Leyster, who lived 200 years earlier must have thought the same. A painting she drew when she was 20 years old depicts a laughing man. Given that portraits of laughing subjects were rare, one might wonder why the painter drew a man laughing out loud.
Judith Leyster is a female painter of the Dutch Golden Age. Born in Haarlem as the eighth child of a local brewer, Leyster started drawing after her father’s bankruptcy. Her artistic ability drew people’s attention when she was 19 years old. Judith became the first woman to join the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke and started working as a career artist. This painting is the first one Leyster signed with her full name. A man wearing a goofy, feathered hat is a jester in a comedy that was popular in the painter’s era. A clown laughs to make others laugh, but it does not mean the clown laugh for himself. He may laugh on the outside but cry on the inside. The easiest way to get comfort is to have a drink. Holding an empty bottle and wearing the flushed cheeks and nose, the man seems to be heavily drunk. An empty bottle means the show is over.
In her time when women were not allowed to pursue regular art education or have a professional career, Leyster must have worked hard to earn a reputation in the art community dominated by male artists and to win clients. Her life must have been tough. A young female artist might have envied a clown who could laugh out loud, unfettered, and this might have been the reason why she drew a drunk, laughing clown.
This painting seems to have been influenced by drawings of a virtuoso and contemporary of Frans Hals, who was working in the same city. Leyster might have dreamt to become as successful as Hals. Unfortunately, her aspiration did not come to fruition. After getting married, she rarely drew paintings while she reared five children, and her name was completely forgotten after her death. Her brilliant works were falsely attributed to Frans Hals until the end of the 19th century.