Book Review: “A Light of Her Own” by Carrie Callaghan

Judith Leyster. Do you recognize the name?

What if I added a list of her contemporaries?  Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer.

“Aha!” you might say. “She’s an artist.”

And indeed she was. A very gifted seventeenth century Dutch artist, and one whose works were not recognized as her own until the late nineteenth century. She was the only woman at that time to achieve master status and operate her own workshop in Haarlem.

She is also the subject of A Light of Her Own, a novel by Carrie Callaghan that illuminates the career of Ms. Leyster and weaves in a story of what life might have been like for a woman of her day, fighting to be recognized as a master painter at a time when art was largely a man’s world.

Although much of Callaghan’s story is a work of fiction, it includes a number of Judith’s real-life friends, family, and contemporaries. We meet her brother, Abraham, her dear friend Maria de Grebber, Maria’s father, Frans, in whose workshop Judith was an apprentice, and  fellow painter Jan Miense Molenaer.

Callaghan’s story begins as Judith attempts to sell a painting at auction—an act that is prohibited since she is not yet a recognized member of the local art guild. But Judith needs money. Unlike many art students of the day, her parents do not provide funds for her apprenticeship. In fact they have recently been expelled by the Reformed Church after declaring bankruptcy, have fled the city, and left Judith and Abraham behind. Abraham struggles to keep a job, staying one step ahead of his creditors only through his sister’s grace until one day he simply disappears.

Determined to prove her worth as an artist to the St. Luke’s Art Guild, Judith scrapes up enough cash to rent a studio and enrolls two students.She is finally accepted into the guild as a master painter, but she still struggles to maintain her studio, hampered by the sudden scarcity of the linseed oil necessary for making her paints.

Maria has a story of her own to tell. She too is an aspiring painter, but as a devout Catholic she strives for humility. She travels to nearby Leiden to retrieve a holy relic from the local priest. There she meets a healer who hires her as an assistant and she believes she is at last serving her purpose.

As the story continues Judith must help rescue Maria who is near death from an infection. Abraham returns and is convicted of theft, branded as a derelict and lashed for his crime. When he gets a job working at the leper hospital, he and Maria discover the truth behind the linseed oil shortage.

Of course there is more, but I’ll let you discover what happens next.

A Light of Her Own is an engaging story. I encourage you to pick up a copy. You’ll thank me.

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