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Special Report

Anne Vallayer-Coster:
First Retrospective


Anne Vallayer-Coster
Bouquet of Flowers in a Blue Porcelain Vase, 1776
Dallas Museum of Art



Anne Vallayer-Coster
Still Life with Ham, Bottles and Radishes, 1767
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Gemaeldegalerie, Germany


Alexandre Roslin
Portrait of Anne Vallayer-Coster, c. 1783
Private Collection



Still Life: Flowers and Fruit, 1787
Musée d’art et d’histoire
de la ville de Genève


 

This winter, New York audiences will have the opportunity to view the first retrospective of one of the foremost still-life painters in eighteenth-century France, Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818), whose works were celebrated by the critics and collected by her contemporaries, including Marie-Antoinette and courtiers in her circle. As was the case with many eighteenth-century artists whose reputations declined following the French Revolution, the art of Vallayer-Coster has, until quite recently, been something of a well-kept secret, admired by specialists of the period but largely unknown to the general public. Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette features some thirty-five paintings from museums and private collections in the United States and Europe. The exhibition was developed and curated by Eik Kahng, formerly with the Dallas Museum of Art and currently the Associate Curator of 18th- and 19th-Century Art at The Walters Art Museum. The exhibition comes to The Frick Collection, the third and final North American venue on the tour, in January 2003, following its presentation at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Dallas Museum of Art (the exhibition’s last venue is the Centre de La Vieille Charité in Marseille, France). Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette is made possible through the support of the Fellows of The Frick Collection.

Presentation of the exhibition in New York is coordinated by the Frick’s Chief Curator, Colin B. Bailey, who selected the works on view at this venue (a slightly smaller version of the exhibition than has appeared elsewhere). He also contributed an essay, A Still-Life Painter and Her Patrons: Collecting Vallayer-Coster, 1770-1789, to the exhibition catalogue (full publication details below). Dr. Bailey comments, "With the example of Chardin to inspire her, Vallayer-Coster emerged as the most gifted and venerable still-life painter of Louis XVI’s reign. This exhibition allows us to follow the development of the genre in the final two decades of the ancien régime and to become better acquainted with an artist known largely to specialists and art historians."

ACCEPTANCE AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY

One of four daughters born to a Parisian goldsmith and jewelry dealer, Anne Vallayer-Coster seems not to have entered the studio of a professional painter, but instead received her training from a variety of sources: her father, the botanical specialist Madeleine Basseport, and the celebrated marine painter Joseph Vernet. Something of a prodigy, she achieved recognition very early in her career with admittance, in a single stroke on July 28, 1770, as both an associate and full member of the Royal Academy (Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture). At age twenty-six, she was, in fact, one of only four women accepted before the French Revolution. Of the paintings submitted for review on this occasion, two were retained for the Academy’s collection, The Attributes of Music and The Attributes of Painting, and are now in the holdings of the Louvre. The former is among the early career highlights presented in the exhibition at the Frick, revealing her skill at capturing illumination and at rendering a variety of textures — such as the hammered copper of a horn,

luxurious embroidery and textile surfaces, and the sheen of polished mahogany on a violin.

EXPLORATIONS IN STILL-LIFE PAINTING

In the first half of the eighteenth century, the still-life genre had been dominated by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) and Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). This category was ranked at the bottom of the Academy’s hierarchy of subject matter, whereas painting the human figure in religious, historical, and mythological narratives stood at the top. Accepted into the Academy as a genre painter, Vallayer was permitted to participate in the biennial Salon, which she did regularly until the Revolution, showing a range of works, from Chardinesque overdoors and baskets of fruit, to trophies of the hunt, to grand displays of household objects in the manner of Dutch and Flemish painters of the Golden Age.

Curiously, it is as a painter of floral still lifes that she is best known today, even though it was years later, in the Salon of 1775, that she first presented such works.

Among her most ambitious floral paintings are the imposing Bouquet of Flowers in a Blue Porcelain Vase and its pendant, Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, both of which are included in the exhibition. Also on view is a stunning work that reflects the Enlightenment’s fascination for conchology, Still Life with Seashells and Coral, which entered the collection of Louis-François-Joseph de Bourbon, prince de Conti, the libertine first cousin of Louis XV. Among the aquatic curiosities that fill this dramatic canvas, on loan to the exhibition from the Louvre, are more than seventeen different types of mollusks, gorgonia, and sponges.

As her output of flowers and fruits, hunt trophies, and tables filled with victuals (such as Still Life with Hams, Bottles, and Radishes) will make clear to visitors of the exhibition, Vallayer-Coster maintained a varied production of immaculately crafted still-life painting for more than half a century. Her last canvas, the monumental Still Life with Lobster, exhibited at the Salon of 1817 and offered in homage to the restored Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, represents a grand summation of the themes she addressed throughout her lengthy career. While certain elements, such as the velvety grapes and suspended game owe much to Chardin, the robust coloring, imposing compositions, and meticulously described surfaces are elements of a more personal and original style.

CAPTURING THE ATTENTION OF MARIE-ANTOINETTE

Although it is not known how Vallayer insinuated herself into Marie-Antoinette’s good graces, by 1779 the monarch owned at least one canvas by her, the Bust of a Young Vestal (now in a private collection), which was exhibited at the Salon that year as "belonging to the Queen." Marie-Antoinette also intervened to ensure that Vallayer was given an apartment and studio in the Louvre, into which she eventually moved in 1781. That year, the Queen (along with the Minister of Fine Arts and several notable collectors) was present at Versailles to witness Vallayer’s marriage to Jean-Pierre Silvestre Coster, a lawyer and office holder from a prosperous banking dynasty from Lorraine. Although Vallayer-Coster (as she now signed her pictures) would soon be replaced in Marie-Antoinette’s esteem by the brilliant portraitist Elizabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842), she remained close to the Queen’s entourage. Indeed, her patronage led to commissions by other members of the court and great collectors, including the prince de Conti, the abbé Terray, the financiers Beaujon and Montullé, and the comte de Merle. It was this association with the ancien régime that brought her great success, but also ultimately caused her reputation to fall following the French Revolution, as was the case with many eighteenth-century artists close to the court.


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