Archive for August 6th, 2015

“Mlle Vallayer astonishes us as much as she enchants us … no one of the French school can rival the strength of [her] colors … nor her uncomplicated surface finish. She preserves the freshness of tone and a beautiful harmony throughout the canvas. What a success at this age!” — Diderot, 1771

Still Life with Round Bottle (1770)

Dear friends and readers,

The above Still Life with Round Bottle appears to be considerably less well-known than the familiar (found all over the Internet and in most surveys of women painters)

White Tureen (1771),

so I placed the wine bottle (with its nearby realistically textured aka yummy bread and Mackintosh like sharp-sour tasting apple, home-made jam [?] and simple glass of wine) before the soup bowl (an essay in levels of white and light, against dark purply wines, richer succulent bread and greys above).

They both merit the adjectives used frequently of Anne Vallayer-Coster’s art: chaste, cool, elegant, a quiet order, reverent sensuality, earthiness contained.

Remembering the remark that prompted Jane Austen’s Henry Tilney to say, “It is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible” (the epitaph for this blog), Catherine Morland’s exclamation after the first tour of Northanger Abbey, “What beautiful hyacinths! I have just learnt to love a hyacinth!,” I must make Potted Hyacinth (n.d.) our third reproduction before saying anything else:


Whenever Vallayer-Coster’s life is sketched, we are told a second set of characteristics about her in phrases like ever “indefatigably painting” and “regularly exhibiting.” Except for the period of the revolution, when Marie Antoinette’s patronage of her put her at risk, she is continuously hard at work, serious in feel about it, giving of herself through color and striking objects scattered about or placed in a row, in relationships. Some 450 works are recorded. She does not appear to have needed the money. So what she cares about is her work. If she remains personally unknown, even mysterious, it may be we could apply Macbeth’s statement if we knew more about her fallow period during the revolution and say her motto could be:

“The labor we delight in physics pain.”

Self-Portrait (at the Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles)

She came from a family of craftsmen-artists. She was the daughter of Joseph Vallayer, a goldsmith who worked for the Gobeline tapestry factory; when he died, her mother ran the family workshop as a successful business. By the time Anne was 10 the family had moved to Paris and her father set up a successful workshop there; when he died (relatively young it seems), her mother ran the business.

Nothing is known of her artistic training, only that Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-80) was a family friend. She was “so likeable” too, wrote Jean George Willie, and by 1770 she was unanimously accepted as a member of the Academie Royale. In 1780 Antoinette granted her the title of “Painter to the Queen,” and allocated her a Louvre apartment which she vacated only in 1806 (when Napoleon evicted the artists). We know she had powerful patrons and found friends in fellow artists, e.g. Jean Baptiste Pierre who succeeded Boucher as Premier Peintre in 1770, was an administrator at Gobelins and commissioned tapestry designs from her.

But despite the years she lived through and her connections, she is another one of these pre-20th century women whose private life is declared uneventful: she married in 1781 P. Silvester-Coster, a lawyer from a noble family of financiers and courtiers; wedding held at Versailles, contract signed by the queen. No children are named. Though she signed a petition asking that her colleague Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s name be taken off the list of emigres, in all the 19 years of her membership in the academy, her name is mentioned 6 times (Peterson and Wilson, 60.

It does seem as if her greatest compositions were painted before the Revolution and she turned to smaller compositions late in life, so it some events got to her as she absorbed her mind and talent painting away. But here I will follow the great biography by Marianne Roland Michel, Anne Vallayer-Coster, Painter to the Court of Marie Antoinette, and in this short blog stick to the paintings.


Nochlin and Harris say that “after Chardin and Oudry” she is “the best still life painter of the 18th century,” and that Chardin’s work has overshadowed hers. Like Duparc, her work reminds people of Chardin. Witness one of his several Musical Instruments compositions:


and then her Attributes of Music (1770):


The difference we see here is typical: his composition is on a straight plane while hers is diagonal; we move in a circle from violin to horn, to wind instruments, some round and flat facing us, others to their side, with a feel of a spontaneous assortment.

I think she loses out against Chardin because he has many genre paintings, depictions of absorbed characters doing things which suggest a story. We have to try to feel her ardent presence in the intensity of colors and contrasts among objects as coming alive, as characters themselves. She has great variety, and can offer this garish aggressive piece:

Still Life with Bottles and Radishes

as against this retiring grapes in and next to a basket.


We also miss a lot when we don’t see the surface of her originals. Perhaps this loss may be glimpsed in this reproduction of Peaches and Grapes which suggests the surface of peaches, and a range of delicately nuanced tones:


I like this simple set of flowers (rather than the more elaborate compositions which feel like they are intended to please the pompous):


This Still Life with Plums and A Lemon (1778):


dead game, usually thought more appropriate for male painters, and birds and meat ready for the cook:


She also captures lobsters still dark red and orange with left-over life. As a group together with this one composed of beautiful greys, glass, and light, they make one understand turning to vegetarianism:

Dead Fish with Glasses

Along with musical instruments, she emblematizes painting, sculpture and architecture:


There is a “Military trophies, with a bust of Minerva” (there were men at court), and by contrast simple kitchen utensils and fancy porcelain for tea services; simple and elaborate, large and small compositions” (Harris and Nochlin, Women Artists, 1550-1950).

As with Chardin, I like best her depictions of simple common things from everyday life and objects redolent of art; she is (Germaine Greer’s words, 244-46) like him, “a profoundly serious” “contemplative, determinedly private, dignified and hard working.”

Late in life she we find these smaller pictures, seeming to do a kind of disappearing act altogether, of which I could locate only this black-and-white:



Her limitations should not be overlooked. This Still life with Sea Shells (1789) may be a site for memories:


but (to paraphrase Swift) there is nothing doing.

Her choice of still-life has been denigrated as an inferior genre (suitable to a woman); she was condescended to (“Pour une demoiselle. que d’art! and quel genie”), and told “by Bachaumont to “stick to still-lifes” when she tried to expand to portraiture. Her Mme de Saint-Hubert as Dido, 1785 (at the Women’s Museum of Art in DC) has a false mask of a bland face and stiff gestures despite the beautiful colors of the rich soft dress:


and many of her portraits are similar failures but there are successes: this sensitive depiction of Joseph-Charles Roettiers (1692-1779), a sculptor, medallian engraver, and royal goldsmith (probably a family friend)


The sufficiently individualized girl at the center of The Violin Lesson (n.d.):


Apparently a portrait of herself at the height of her success, 2 years after marriage and a member of Antoinette’s circle of women is pleasing. She looks relaxed, comfortably sexual:


And we should not forget portraits of court members was how she made money, and how she built her original career:

Marie-Adelaide de France (1780, ?)


Some modern admirers have created pictures in imitation of her which fill out a canvas. However quiet though, her Vase with Flowers (1780) with its lack of or neutral background:


is to be preferred to

A flower Arrangement after Vallayer-Coster’s Vase of Flowers, 1780

But this by Eli Kahng, “A tribute to Vallayer-Coster,” is successful because it attempts to restore the dreamer, to insert her into her picture as its source:


I am again grateful to Maureen Mulvihill for alerting us to coming world-class exhibit of women artists at the National Museum of Women in the Arts this autumn in DC: Pathmakers.


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