(left) Judith Leyster, self-portrait (detail), 1630. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.  In 1633 she was the first woman to join the Haarlem guild. (above) The proposition also known as Man offering money to a young woman, Judith Leyster, 1631. Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis in The Hague.  This early painting by Leyster is also one of her finest.  Interpretations of the piece vary, with some art critics arguing that Leyster paints against the contemporary convention of the day, depicting a sexual proposition as uninvited and unwelcome.


The Guild of Saint Luke was a specific organization of European artists within the larger guild system which prospered between the 14th and 18th centuries. Earliest guild members were primarily manuscript illuminators; however, over time, guild memberships often varied to include scribes, visual artists, sculptors, art dealers, art patrons, painters and decorators. The Guild of Saint Luke, taking its name from the apostle credited with painting the first icon of Mary, was one of the earliest forms of these artist guilds. It exercised considerable power through its regulations of apprentice training and art sales. It also mediated disputes between artists or artist and their clients.

Upon completion of three to five year apprenticeships, an artist became a journeyman and free to work for any guild member. However, it was not until they became free masters that they could set up their own shops, apprentice young artists, and sell their work and the work of others. Guilds usually excluded women from membership and from becoming free masters. There were only two exceptions to this practice: Caterina van Hemessen who joined the famous Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp and Judith Leyster who was a member of the guild in Haarlem.

In the 17th century, the guilds began to decline. This was due to the movement toward academy style education which separated training from the actual sale of art. Another factor was the tension which developed between guild members and artists who served specific monarchs. Very few guilds survived to the end of the 18th century.

But the contribution of women to the world of art was far from over with the demise of the guilds. They would re-emerge over the following centuries, women's influence and work waxing and waning, their innovations sometimes appropriated by men. In the twentieth century things began to change, mirroring the slow progress toward equality and voice in Western Society. This included, for example, the first wave of feminism in the late 19th Century which centered on a woman's right to vote. (The US Congress did not grant suffrage until 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.)