A Visual Analysis of Judith Leyster’s The Last Drop

Dutch Baroque painter Judith Leyster created this dynamic 35-by-28-inch composition entitled “The Last Drop” in 1609, using oil on canvas, the prevalent artists’ medium of the era. The painting is striking in its apparent simplicity, but a deeper look reveals to viewers the visual complexities beneath the surface, which give way to an intricate underlying theme. Leyster ultimately uses her piece as a vehicle to warn viewers against a life of indulgence and sin, specifically through visual juxtaposition, illusionistic realism, deliberate body language, and color.

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The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster

The first thing a viewer notices about this piece is the stark contrast between the lit cavalier and his silhouetted companion, as well as between the burning candle and the dark hourglass. The figure to the right is the “gay cavalier,” exemplified by the illumination of his face and body. The light reveals the color and texture of his garb, as well as the details of his jovial countenance. In this sense, the cavalier’s personality is revealed to a greater extent than his companion. He is the classic image of a 17th-century man given over to the vices of society — drinking in excess, smoking, and indulging in playful behavior. His companion, on the other hand, sits in obscurity, shielded from viewers’ eyes by an expanse of darkness. His character and personality, unlike his counterpart’s, is not revealed to a great extent. He takes part in the same revelry as the cavalier, yet the darkness which cloaks him ultimately makes his activities seem less inconsequential, less playful. He is the embodiment of the “dark side” of indulgence; the visual juxtaposition of the companion against the cavalier demonstrates both the blissful exterior of a carefree approach to life as well as its less charming results. The other major contrast that Leyster sets up in this piece is the shadowed hourglass versus the lit candle. One interpretation of this compositional choice is that the skeleton (death), brought the light to illuminate the hourglass so that the figure on the left can see that his time is running low. The fact that the hourglass is dimmed speaks to the idea that it has been shoved as far as possible into the figure’s view, yet he still chooses to ignore it. Death has attempted so vigorously to convey its warning that it has unintentionally obscured its own message from ever being seen. The candle serves as a further reminder of the companion’s deep-rooted aversion to facing his fate. Light is knowledge, and since it is impossible to ignore something so all-encompassing as light, the companion’s apparent ignorance of the light’s presence proves that he is resistant to the truth that he is being confronted with. Still, the significance of the lit candle versus the dark hourglass remains ambiguous. Does the dim hourglass show the extent of death’s effort to relay his message, or does it signify that the figure’s time is already up? Is the light, in the form of a candle, a benevolent or a deceitful gesture? Ultimately, however, Leyster’s visual juxtaposition of light and dark serves as a storytelling technique, which leads readers to the true message behind the piece: a dark and imminent warning.

Visual juxtaposition is also apparent in the body language of the figures in the piece. The cavalier stands on two feet, while his companion is confined to a chair. The seated figure’s body is sprawled out in a mellow state, while his counterpart appears energetic and gay. The skeleton is utterly crippled, hunched over in a decrepit manner. Leyster’s deliberate use of body language goes beyond juxtaposition, however; each figure’s specific stance and facial expression also reveals a greater depth of their personalities and, ultimately, of the piece as a whole. To begin, the cavalier appears to serve as the centerpiece of the composition. He is depicted smiling, laughing, and dancing, truly enjoying the vices in which he partakes. The affetti of the cavalier are those of pure enjoyment. His head is thrown back in the midst of laughter, while his eyes seem unfocused, suggesting a carefree approach to life. Moreover, the cavalier’s arms are outstretched, an open gesture which demonstrates the kind of loose joviality associated with good-natured drunkenness. To the left, his companion’s body language exudes a more serious and dark sense of pleasure. The man’s legs are sprawled in a supportive arrangement, keeping his body stable as he grasps the bottle with both hands and holds it up to his mouth with every ounce of his remaining energy. His facial expression is barely discernible behind the bottle, which he is maneuvering to get the titular last drop from. Yet, viewers may observe that the figure’s eyes are not completely trained on the bottle. Rather, the amount of white in the figure’s right eye reveals that he is beginning to glance over at the skeleton, and to essentially see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel”. Behind him, the skeleton, which we assume to signify death, appears hunched over, desperately trying to relay his message to the seated man. The skeleton’s stance demonstrates a sense of urgency, which is compounded by the obvious symbol of the hourglass. The final figure, the skull in the skeleton’s hand, is significant mainly in its positioning. The skeleton holds the skull in a presentational manner, and its face is purposely oriented toward the true focal point of the piece, the seated companion. While each of the figures’ individual body language speak volumes, their culmination is what ultimately leads viewers to the underlying message. Close inspection of the composition reveals Leyster’s deliberate body placement, which creates a spiral shape. The cavalier’s right hand initially draws viewers in — it is a grand-looking gesture, and the arm lies at the top of the scene. The sharp diagonal line of the arm and shoulders leads the eye down the cavalier’s body, where it is eventually met by the contrasting blue pantaloons of the leftmost figure. From there the eye moves up the leg, leading viewers to notice the oversized bottle, the outstretched hands, and the desperate face. In this section of the piece, four spherical shapes — the head of the seated figure, the bottle, the skeleton’s head, and the skull — form the completion of the spiral, as well as the completion of the allegorical cycle which Leyster depicts. The final image in viewers’ minds is the center of the spiral, the skull, which serves as a sharp reminder of death’s ever presence and inevitability.

Leyster’s utilization of the spiral composition is also dramatically emphasized by the colors of the figures’ garb. The cycle begins with the cavalier, who is dressed in a vivid, red garment. The color red is a warm hue, which connotes energy and activeness. Thus, in this way, the cavalier’s clothing reveals his inner state of being. The next piece in the spiral is the companion, who wears more muted clothing. The companion’s pants are a pleasing shade of blue, contrasting the dark brown and black tones of his jacket. The blue, as opposed to the red, appears much colder and more somber, reflecting the emotions of the leftmost figure, who has just realized his bottle is nearing empty. There is another dimension, however, aside from the overt colors that the figures sport. Examining closely, the cavalier’s vest is actually blue, which suggests that there is a deeper, more somber fate that will eventually plague him as well as his companion. Through this use of color, Leyster has created yet another metaphor in this work. The blue is hidden behind his bright, lively jacket, which shows his harmless, energetic attitude, but we still know that there is a dismal blue hidden within him. Surrounding the cavalier and his companion are dark and dreary shades of brown and black. This makes the colors in the clothing of the two men attract a lot of attention from the viewer, suggesting that they are indeed important to the story. Leyster once again inserts a clever conceit into her work, signifying that there is a similarity between the two main figures, simply by arranging their clothing in a witty manner.

Viewing Judith Leyster’s “The Last Drop” is, ultimately, a complex experience. Every curve of her paintbrush is like an invitation for viewers to bask in the aesthetic pleasures that her composition proposes. It is more than evident that Leyster knows how to provide her audience with an overabundance of information while keeping her composition concise, yet stunning. This piece ultimately pulls viewers into a scene that seems quite lively at first, only to reveal its true meaning through endless speculation and observing. “The Last Drop” is a piece that explains itself not only through composition and subject matter, but even through the little things that a passerby may overlook: the brushwork, the colors, the arrangement, and the delicate treatment clearly used when making this piece. Leyster used her paint to speak poetry. It is clear she thought out each drip of paint, right down to the last drop.

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Writer, Artist, Poet, Dummy

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