Judith Leyster , self-portrait. 1630. National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC. In 1633 she was the first woman to join the Haarlem guild. Self-portrait. Caterina van Hemessen. 1548. Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel. Van Hemessen's self-portrait is the earliest known example of an artist seated at an easel. After 1554, there is no artwork which can be identified as hers. This leads art historians to speculate that her creative career ended with her marriage.

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. Two notable exceptions to this practice were 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.