Anne Vallayer-Coster (December 21, 1744 – February 28, 1818) was an 18th-century French painter. Known as a prodigy artist at a young age, she achieved fame and recognition very early in her career, being admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1770, at the age of twenty-six.
Despite the negative reputation that still life painting had at this time, Vallayer-Coster's highly developed skills, especially in the depiction of flowers, soon generated a great deal of attention from collectors and other artists. Her 'precocious talent and the rave reviews' earned her the attention of the court, where Marie Antoinette took a particular interest in Vallayer-Coster's paintings.
Regardless of her closeness to the ancient régime and France's hated monarch she survived the bloodshed of the French Revolution. However, the fall of the French monarchy, which were her primary patrons, caused her banishment into the shadows.
Anne Vallayer-Coster was a woman in a man's world. It is unknown what she thought of contemporaries who admitted her to the confraternity, and made her an honorary 'man'. Her life was determinedly private, dignified and hard-working. Occasionally she attempted other genres, but for the usual reasons her success at figure painting was limited.
Born in 174on the banks of the Bièvre along the Seine River in France, Vallayer-Coster was one of four daughters born to a goldsmith of the royal family at Gobelines. In 1754, Anne's father moved their family to Paris. Anne Vallayer-Coster seems not to have entered the studio of a professional painter, but instead received her training from a variety of sources, including her father, the botanical specialist Madeleine Basseport, and the celebrated marine painter Joseph Vernet.
By the age of twenty-six, Vallayer-Coster was still without a name or a sponsor; this proved to be a worrisome issue for her. Reluctantly, she submitted two of her still lifes (one of The Attributes of Painting, and The Attributes of Music) to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, as reception pieces in 1770. She was unanimously elected into the Royal Académie once the honorable Academicians saw her paintings, making her one of only four women accepted into the Académie before the French Revolution. This moment of success however, was overshadowed by the death of her father. Immediately her mother took over the family business, quite commonly the case during this time, and Anne continued to work to help support her family.
Vallayer-Coster exhibited her first still lifes with flowers in 177and four years later she began to enjoy the patronage of Marie Antoinette. With her Court connections and pressure from Marie Antoinette, she received space in Louvre in 1781 which was unusual for women artists. Shortly thereafter, in the presence of Marie Antoinette at the courts of Versailles, she married Jean-Pierre Silvestre Coster, a wealthy lawyer, parlementaire, and respected member of a powerful family from Lorraine. With these titles came the very highest ranks of the bourgeoisies, the noblesse de robe. With such a prestigious title came a state office which, traditionally during this time was bought from father to son, making them almost indistinguishable from the old nobility.
She received early recognition of her career after being elected as an associate and a full member of the Royal Académie in 1770. Her strategies in initiating and sustaining her professional career were brilliant. She was as exceptional in achieving membership in the Academy and succeeding in a prominent, professional career late in the 18th century, when resistance to women in the public sphere was deepening and the Académie was as resistant as ever to welcoming women into its ranks. A common image of Vallayer-Coster was not only as a virtuous artist but as a skillful diplomat and negotiator as well, sharply aware both of her potential patrons' interests and of her own, unusual position as prominent woman artist.
The two paintings the she submitted for review to the Académie in 1770, The Attributes of Music and The Attributes of Painting, now in the holdings of the Louvre. The former is among the early career highlights presented in the Frick exhibition.
With the Reign of Terror in 1793, the ancient regime, that up to this point had supported Vallayer-Coster, disappeared. Despite her noble status and her connection to the throne, Vallayer-Coster was able to deviate away from the pandemonium of the French Revolution in 1789. Even with the arrival of Napoléon when the empress Josephine acquired two works from her in 1804, her reputation suffered. After this period of national upheaval, little is known of Vallayer-Coster's career. The only exception that came from this was that she replaced her previous work of still lifes for that of flower portraits; however, these proved to be unavailing.
In 181she made a come back with her old subject matter by way of the exhibition of her Still Life with Lobster in the Paris Salon. This piece belonged to Louis XVIII after he was restored to the French throne in 1814. There is some evidence to believe that at Vallayer-Coster gave it to 'the king as an expression of her joy as a loyal Bourbon supporter through the turbulent years of the Revolution and Napoleonic imperialism.
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!'
She died in 181at the age of seventy-four having painted more than 120 still lifes always with a distinctive colouristic brilliance.
The bulk of Vallayer-Coster's work was devoted to the language of still life as it had been developed in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. During these centuries, the genre of still life was placed lowest on the hierarchical ladder. For this reason, it was expatriated to women. Vallayer-Coster would not allow this to reduce the pride and thoroughness that she put into her work.
She had a way about her paintings that resulted in their attractiveness. It was the 'bold, decorative lines of her compositions, the richness of her colors and simulated textures, and the feats of illusionism she achieved in depicting wide variety of objects, both natural and artificial' which drew in the attention of the Royal Académie and the numerous collectors who purchased her paintings. This interaction between art and nature was quite common in Dutch, Flemish and French still lifes. Her work reveals the clear influence of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, as well as 17th-century Dutch masters, whose work has been far more highly valued, but what made Vallayer-Coster's style stand out against the other still life painters was her unique way of coalescing representational illusionism with decorative compositional structures.
The end of the 18th-century and the fall of the French monarchy closed the doors on Vallayer-Coster's still life era and opened them to her new style of florals. It has been argued that this was the highlight of her career and what she is best known for. However, it has also been argued that the flower paintings were futile to her career. Nevertheless, this collection contained floral studies in oil, watercolor and gouache.
Vallayer-Coster had a photographic quality about her paintings. She used a variation of brush strokes to create the illusion that different styles of painting were being used. This was achieved by simulation material substance in paint and through finely blended precision.
For Vallayer-Coster, even inanimate objects had a theatrical character of their own. Her objective was to give an aspect of grandeur to everything that she painted; in doing so, she created an additional sense of stability and plenitude. The result of her work makes perfect sense within the Enlightenment. The images portrayed in her paintings harmonized with the elite bankers and aristocrats, whom held confidence in what they owned. These same men with their ownership of the objects and the paintings believed that they also owned a nation as well. Their high societal status and material possession made them believe that they could 'knock still-life off its pedestal'. To Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment's encompassing stare and classification of appearances stood for repressive control.
The exhibition titled 'Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie Antoinette,' was the first exhibit on Anne Vallayer-Coster to provide a proper, all-encompassing representation of her paintings. It has been hung in the temporary display gallery at the Frick Collection. Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, and curated by Eik Kahng, this exhibition had its debut at the National Gallery of Art, where it opened on June 30, 200and closed on September 2of the same year.
Containing more than thirty-five of Vallayer-Coster's paintings, which were provided by both museums and private collectors of France and the United States, this exhibit was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
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 the Still Life with Lobster (1817), which was to be her last painting, 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.
To gain an understanding of the magnitude of Vallayer-Coster's achievements, the exhibition includes additional works by such renowned artists as Chardin , her elder and the celebrated master of still life painting, and her contemporary Henri-Horace Roland Delaporte, among others.