Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette is the first significant exhibition to focus on the work of one of the most talented still-life painters of the French School. Acclaimed by the critics, admired by her peers, and enjoying the patronage of the queen herself, Vallayer-Coster was one of only four women accepted at the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture before the French Revolution.
Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, this exhibition has its debut at the National Gallery of Art, where it opens on June 30 and closes on September 22, 2002. More than 40 of Vallayer-Coster's paintings are presented from private collections and museum galleries in Europe and North America. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
To put Vallayer-Coster's achievements in perspective, the exhibition includes additional works by such renowned artists as Jean Siméon Chardin, her elder and the celebrated master of still-life painting, and her contemporary Henri-Horace Roland Delaporte, among others.
"We welcome this opportunity to bring to an international art audience, for the first time, a comprehensive view of the oeuvre of this accomplished artist," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "For too long her art has remained the exclusive pleasure of a few collectors and connoisseurs."
Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818) achieved fame and recognition very early in her career, being admitted to the Royal Academy in 1770, when she was only 26 years old. That same year the bi-weekly Mercure de France paid tribute to her achievement, heralding that "the disadvantages of her sex notwithstanding, she has taken the difficult art of rendering nature to a degree of perfection that enchants and surprises us." Her highly developed skills, especially in the depiction of flowers, soon generated a great deal of attention from collectors and other artists. Commenting on the Salon exhibit of 1771, the encyclopedist Denis Diderot noted that "if all new members of the Royal Academy made a showing like Mademoiselle Vallayer's, and sustained the same high level of quality, the Salon would look very different!"Her precocious talent and the rave reviews brought her to the attention of the court, where Queen Marie-Antoinette took a special interest in Vallayer-Coster's paintings. She would paint for the court for many years, creating not only still lifes but also portraits later on. Unfortunately, the portraits commissioned by Louis XVI of himself and the queen are lost.
The queen's favor extended to non-artistic areas as well. Anne Vallayer's marriage contract to Jean-Pierre Coster was executed at Versailles, in 1781, in the presence of Marie-Antoinette, who signed it. With the queen's patronage, commissions from members of the court followed, and Vallayer-Coster listed among her clients several great collectors, including Louis-Gabriel, marquis de Véri-Raionard, the abbé Terray, the prince de Conti, the financier Beaujon and the comte de Merle.
Vallayer-Coster painted more than 120 flower still lifes, always with a distinctive coloristic brilliance. She balanced very vivid hues with remarkable success, as in her Bouquet of Flowers in a Blue Porcelain Vase (1776). Her talent in portraying nature was such that A Vase of Flowers and Two Plums on a Marble Tabletop (1781) was used as the model for a Gobelins tapestry.
One of her most accomplished works, and one of the highlights of this exhibition, is Still Life with Seashells and Coral (1769). Later in life, in what was to be her last painting--Still Life with Lobster (1817)--she
managed what an expert called "a summation of her career," depicting most of her previous subjects together in a work she donated to the restored king Louis XVIII.
Some critics place the origin of her talent in her childhood years when she lived on the grounds of the Gobelins Manufacturing complex, where her father was an apprentice goldsmith. Her mother was a somewhat accomplished painter of miniatures, and Vallayer-Coster herself very likely studied under Claude-Joseph Vernet, the great landscape painter.
As with most artists so closely associated with the royal court at the time, her reputation suffered with the French Revolution. Even though, after the arrival of Napoléon, the empress Josephine acquired two works from her in 1804, several decades would pass before the brothers Gouncourt, in 1880, restored the prestige of the "extravagant privilege and delightful frivolity" of the late 18th century.
Vallayer-Coster, however, continued to be largely ignored: her only mention being a 1970 monograph by Marianne Roland Michel, an expert in 18th-century art. Then, ten years ago the Louvre acquired her Still Life with Seashells and Coral (1769), and a few years later the Dallas Museum of Art purchased a pendant pair of floral still-life paintings that had been exhibited in the Salon of 1777.
Now, Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette reacquaints the art world with one of the 18th century's most gifted painters.
Still Life with Lobster, 1781
oil on canvas
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
Purchased with Funds from the Libbey Endowment,
gift of Edward Drummond