A Light of Her Own
In this historical fiction novel, the author meticulously researched the lives of Judith Leyster and Maria de Grebber, two unknown Dutch painters in the 17th century. The story is about their friendship and their destinies, which would eventually be shaped by their own independent ambitions.
Maria is a devout Catholic in Holland, a country in which this religion was banned, trying to absolve her sins by seeking a lost relic belonging to the Catholic Church. Judith is a painter in a man's world, trying to make a name for herself, even if it means lying and sidestepping the law. Callaghan outlines the trials and tribulations of Dutch female artists at that time. The vivid description of 17th century Dutch life is compelling.
Judith Leyster is the first woman to be accepted into the illustrious artist's Haarlem Guild, the same one in which Rembrandt and Vermeer were members. It isn’t until 1893 that her paintings are rediscovered. She never reaches fame as an artist while she is alive.
From the first page, the author draws us into her story. It begins with Judith peeking through a window, trying to see the auction of paintings at the Haarlem Guild. Women are not allowed to attend auctions. One of her paintings is supposed to be auctioned off, but she fails to see it. She suspects that it was stolen, and she runs through the streets of Haarlem, trying to catch the crook.
Judith has a studio in Frans de Grebber's home where she shares a bedroom with Maria, Fran's daughter. Both teenagers talk about their dreams and ambitions and develop a close friendship. Maria is riddled with guilt, which Judith can't understand. "There was too much work to do here in her workshop for Judith to worry about excavating every guilty crevice of Maria's tortured conscience."
Judith is not satisfied with being an apprentice. She wants to become a master, which would allow her to rent her own workshop. With her persistence, she finds Lachine, the man who supposedly stole her painting. He commissions another one and pays her. She paints a clown, Gerard Snellings, who claims that someone wants to murder him. Judith saves Lachine's life at the docks by offering to paint the sailors, who scoff at her. "A lady painter, is that right? Never heard of such a thing." Lachine offers to return the favor by locating her brother, Abraham, who has disappeared.
Meanwhile, Maria needs an azure color of paint to continue her self-portrait. She ventures out on the street alone, finds an apothecary, and buys some paint at an exorbitant price. On the way home, she's accosted by a man who tries to rape her. Her screams attract a crowd, and the man runs away. She's warned to pretend it never happened. Shaken to the core, she decides to keep it a secret, even from her closest friend. She blames herself for not sacrificing enough to absolve her guilt and feels like a failure.
Judith, determined to have her own workshop, finds what she's looking for. It's above a linen shop owned by Chrispijn de Mildt. She sends him a note about renting it. When Chrispijn sees that she's a woman, he hesitates. But Judith convinces him to rent it to her, and they agree on a price.
Maria is shocked when Judith tells her about her workshop and that she sold a painting that was done in her father's workshop. Meanwhile Maria continues to work on her self-portrait and keeps on thinking of sacrifices.
Judith earns enough money from the sale to Lachine to hire two young male apprentices who also get room and board. Another apprentice quit when his parents found out that he was working for a female. They were ashamed of their son apprenticing for a woman.
Judith constantly worries about her finances. She has to find a way to sell more paintings. She finally applies to become a master and a member of the all-male Haarlem Guild. They put her through rigorous questioning about her work. She lies when she tells them that she had never sold a painting on her own. This is a no-no if you're not a guild member. In the end, they grudgingly accept her into the guild.
She assumes that her membership will give her more status as a female painter. "She loved how paint granted her mobility, the power to reshape the world in the most beautiful way she could imagine . . ." However, she soon realizes that acceptance into the guild depends on who you were and not on your skills as a painter. "And even here, where only a few Guild members came to kiss her cheek in congratulations, she was no one important. Worse, she was a woman."
Judith continues to struggle to make a name for herself while Maria continues to atone for her sins. During the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Holland continues its discrimination against native Catholics. Judith doesn't understand what sins Maria has to absolve. "I've been thinking about sin. Because that's what people want to buy . . . reminders not to sin. The strange thing is, those reminders, our paintings, they make sin look rather nice." Maria's God is a Catholic one while Judith's is the God of painting.
Maria enjoys suffering, but Judith isn't aware of it. She finally leaves her father's home, without saying goodbye to Judith, to recover a lost relic from a priest in the town of Leiden. She endures a long and arduous journey by horse and carriage but finally arrives at the address given to her by her father, dirty from traipsing through muddy streets, hungry and tired. Here we have some comedy to relieve the seriousness of the plot. We meet Rembrandt, the painter, and Rene Descartes, the philosopher, gambling with dice. But the priest is nowhere to be found.
The suspense escalates when Maria leaves Leiden with Sara, a healer, who takes advantage of her. She's on her deathbed when she's rescued and brought to Judith's workshop. Judith and Maria are finally reunited, but Maria feels that Judith's motive in taking her in is a selfish one. "Judith, you think only of yourself. All you wanted was to have your workshop, and no one else mattered. What does your success mean, really, if you're alone?"
Judith is still struggling, nobody is buying her paintings, and she doesn't know if she'll have enough money to feed herself, Maria, and her apprentices. Maria is afraid to go home to confront her father. She again feels as if she has failed in not bringing home the lost relic. Judith promises not to tell her father, but she betrays her. Frans de Grebber offers to give her some linseed oil, which has become scarce, and Judith returns the favor by bringing Maria to him. Both women are estranged again.
The plot thickens toward the end when Lachine finally locates her brother, Abraham, who was almost hanged for robbery, and brings him to her workshop. She now has to deal with a linseed oil conspiracy by the guild masters, hang onto her apprentices, and find time to paint herself. Meanwhile, Maria and Abraham become secretly involved with a leper colony.
Judith could think only in terms of painting. She could relate to the portraits in her paintings better than to her friends in real life. "She had missed her friend and her brother, and she had forgotten how to tell them. If she had been able to paint Abraham, to show him how well she saw him, how she noticed the pinch in his cheek . . . he might have understood." Maria thought of painting as an offering while Judith painted for monetary gain. She always felt that a woman painter would never be fully accepted by a male-dominated world.
Maria's self-esteem becomes lower and lower as each of her sacrifices end in failure. When disaster strikes, the plot moves to an unexpected climax.
Judith makes it into the Haarlem Guild but at what price? Are Judith's motives really selfish in betraying Maria or is her self-absorption driven by her dream to become a famous artist? Are Maria's motives to heal truly altruistic or are they mainly to absolve her of her own guilt?
A Light of Her Own, as a portrait of two brave and ambitious Dutch women painters, and a glimpse into 17th century life in Holland, is recommended to all fans of historical fiction.