At the end of 1362 the Florentine writer, Giuseppe Boccaccio, he of The Decameron fame, (see my Daily Art Display Feb 21st 2012), had completed his book, De mulieribus claris (Of Famous Women), a biography of famous (and infamous) women, some real, some mythological. In it he wrote about three female artists and commented:
“…Art is Alien to the mind of women, and these things cannot be accomplished without a great deal of talent, which in women is usually very scarce…”
In this blog I am returning to look at female artists and I am featuring a highly talented lady whose superb artistic talent rubbishes Boccaccio’s theory. Today, I am looking at the struggle she, like other female painters of the time, had fighting their way through to success in a male-dominated field. One of my favourite paintings is by the eighteenth century French female artist Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (See My Daily Art Display November 21st 2012) and recently I have been reading about a contemporary of hers, the very talented 18th century French painter who, like Le Brun, gained the patronage of Marie-Antoinette, the wife of the French monarch, Louis XVI. She is Anne Vallayer-Coster. Such royal patronage was the ultimate prize for aspiring painters as it led to many lucrative commissions. However, unlike Le Brun, Anne Vallayer was not solely a portraitist but was an exceptional still-life and floral painter.
Anne Vallayer-Coster was born in Paris in December 1744. She was the second of four daughters. Her mother was a painter of miniatures. Her father, Joseph Vallayer, was a goldsmith working at the Gobelins Manufactory Company in Paris, and the family lived on the grounds of the Gobelins Manufacturing complex, which produced the finest tapestries as well as luxury objects, which often adorned the royal palaces. In 1757 the family moved to another area of Paris and Anne’s father started to trade in jewellery. His business soon expanded with royal patronage and was granted the right to produce metal products for the military.
Anne Vallayer became interested in sketching and painting at an early age and her mother encouraged her by arranging for her to have private tuition from an art teacher, Madeleine Françoise Basseporte, a one-time pupil of the great French botanical painter, Claude Aubriet, and she, like him, was made the Royal Painter at the court of Louis XV, teaching the royal princesses to paint flowers. Anne Vallayer learnt well from Basseport and she too was to become a talented botanical artist. Her next art tutor was the landscape painter Claude Joseph Vernet. In a short period of time Anne Vallayer became an accomplished artist concentrating on floral still-life works. Her works were a beautiful juxtaposition of the flowers and inanimate objects such as books, musical instruments, tableware and furnishings. The inanimate objects Vallayer included in her floral depictions allowed her to highlight her artistry by depicting the various different surfaces, such as glass, pewter, and silver and how the light played differently on each of them. The still-life works often included aspects of trompe-l’oeil affording depth perception.
In 1770, when she was just twenty-six years of age, such was her artistic talent that a number of her tutors and fellow artists suggested that she should apply to become a member of the Académie Royale. To gain admittance to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture she submitted two reception pieces. They were still life works entitled Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l’architecture (The Attributes of Painting), and Attributs de la musique (The Attributes of Music).
It could be that Anne Valleyer was quite canny when she put forward to the Académie elders her reception piece The Attributes of Painting, as all the objects we see depicted are references to the various arts taught at the academy. The brushes and palette symbolize painting, the bust and torso epitomize sculpture, and the building plans signify architecture. The books and portfolios of drawings symbolize the scholarly facet of the fine arts. It is thought that the bust is a self-portrait of Anne.
Her works met with great acclaim and the honourable Academicians unanimously elected her. This was an extraordinary endorsement as there was a “four female artist at any one time cap” on admissions to the Académie at this time. This achievement was recognised in the twice-weekly gazette and literary magazine Mercure de France of that year, when the journal paid tribute to her achievement, writing:
“…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…”
This should have been the happiest time of her life but the sudden death of her father overshadowed the joyous news. With the main family breadwinner now gone, her mother had no choice but to take over the family business, whilst Anne helped the family finances with the sale of her paintings.
However, despite her being admitted to the Academy she, unlike the male Academicians, was still not allowed to take part in any of the establishment’s drawing courses which involved nude models, as women drawing nude men was considered indecent. So with the drawing course out of her reach she was not able to break into the highest genre of art as set down by the Académie, historical paintings, and so she continued with her favoured art genre, still-lifes as well as some portraiture and landscapes and as an Academician she was now allowed to exhibit some of her work at the biennial Paris Salon exhibitions. This she did starting in 1771 and went on exhibiting regularly there until 1817. In a review of her work shown at the 1771 exhibition, the prominent French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot wrote:
“…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 completed a number of portraits of the royal family including one of Marie-Antoinette. It is said that the queen disliked her portrait. The French critics who were complimentary with regards her floral works, were dismissive of her figurative work. With this in mind and being aware that she had major rivals in that genre, including two fellow Academicians, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Adelaide Labille-Guiard, who were the favoured female portraitist of the time, she decided to concentrate on her still-life painting.
Art was a very important facet in the life of the upper class and nobility. A thorough knowledge of which artists were in vogue and who were the up-and-coming artists was of great importance. Soon through word of mouth in Court circles and the glowing evaluations of her artistic ability, the floral still-life work of Anne Valleyer came to the attention of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Anne Valleyer received a number of painting commissions from Marie-Antoinette and many members of the royal court as well as a number of wealthy art collectors. As was the case with Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the artist and queen became friends and in fact, it was the queen who, at a ceremony at Versailles in 1781, witnessed and signed off the marriage contract between Anne and her betrothed, Jean-Pierre-Silvestre Coster, a wealthy lawyer and respected member of a powerful family from Lorraine.
In total, Anne Valleyer-Coster painted over one hundred and twenty floral still-life works. One painting which she completed in 1781 entitled A Vase of Flowers and Two Plums on a Marble Tabletop was used as a model by Gobelins for one of their tapestries.
To fully appreciate the talent of Anne Valleyer-Coster as an artist take a look at a work she completed in 1776 entitled Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes. This still-life painting was one of a pendant pair and was commissioned by a high-ranking official of the entourage of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Both paintings were exhibited at the Salon of 1777, the year after they were completed. One has come to recognise her expertise in the way she depicts flowers but in this painting we see how accomplished she was when it came to her bas-relief imités.
Look carefully at the vase and the depicted bas-relief work. In sculptural terms, Bas-relief is a form of sculpture in which a solid piece of material is carved so that objects project from a background. This painting combines a number of different elements. We have the exquisite floral painting. We have the still-life depiction of the terracotta vase and the various fruit and finally we have the bas-relief imités depicted on the vase. The skill of the artist in completing such a work is dramatic and totally eye-catching.
Another famous work of hers is Vase of Flowers and Conch Shell, which she completed in 1780. This work of art is thought to be one of three small oval paintings of flowers and fruits which she exhibited in the Salon of 1781. The flowers are a selection of anemones and marguerites. Look carefully how she has depicted the light reflecting on the gilt of the blue porcelain vase and the vase itself and how it shimmers on the multi-coloured conch shell. She has paid close attention to the various textures of the objects on display and how the light reflects differently on their surfaces.
A number of her paintings are in British galleries but her still-life work, Garden Still Life, with Implements, Vegetables, Dead Game, and a Bust of Ceres (The Attributes of Hunting and Gardening) can be found in Basildon Park, Berkshire, a country house run by the National Trust of Great Britain.
The Palladin-style house itself is worth a visit. It was built between 1776 and 1783 for Sir Francis Sykes, a wealth English landowner, Member of Parliament and who was once the Governor of Kasimbazar, India. Valleyer-Coster received this painting commission along with its companion piece, A Still Life of a Vase of Flowers, Fruit, and a Bust of Flora, on a Table in an interior from Joseph-Marie Terray, abbé de Molesme, who was the directeur-général des Bâtiments du Roy and contrôleur–général des finances. The National Trust came by this work of art when it was allocated to them by the UK Government who, in 2010, had taken it in lieu of inheritance tax from the state of Lord and Lady Iliffe, the previous owners. The setting is a park and in the work we see a rake and scythe propped up against a plinth. In the foreground there is a variety of vegetables, a cardoon or wild artichoke, a gourd, a marrow, a melon, a cabbage, a tomato, along with a sickle. On the plinth itself besides the bust of a young woman with an ear of corn in her hair, we see depicted a gun, game-bag, two dead partridges and a hare.
When the fall of the ancien régime came during the French revolution all those close to Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were in great danger and many of the artists, such as Vigée Le Brun, had to go into exile to save themselves. Anne Valleyer-Coster was fortunate in as much as, regardless of her closeness to the queen, who along with her husband, Louis XVI, was hated by the common people, she managed to survive the bloodshed of the French Revolution. However, along with the fall of the French monarchy, went her primary patrons and her lucrative commissions dried up completely. She, as an artist, was forgotten during these turbulent times.
It is interesting to note that a painting, Still Life with Lobster, which she completed in 1781. Many believe it to be her best still-life work. In 1817 she exhibited it in that year’s Paris Salon. This painting came into the hands of Louis XVIII after he had been restored to the French throne in 1814. Some art historians believe Vallayer-Coster gave it to the king as an expression of her joy as somebody who had remained loyal to the Bourbon cause throughout the turbulent years of the Revolution and the following Napoleonic imperialism. However, it should be noted that she had produced two works of art in 1804 for Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. In the work, she has included many of the previous objects she had incorporated in earlier still life works.
Anne Valleyer-Coster was one of the greatest still-life painters of the eighteenth century and art historians believe that her work was influenced by the great Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin who died in 1779 and who is still considered to be one of the greatest French still-life and genre painters. She imitated his dark and shadowy tabletops on which were her arrangements of fruit, bread and dead game. In her later years she turned to a more unrestrained lavishness which was seen in Dutch floral painting. She died in Paris in 1818, aged 73 and will always be remembered for her still-life works with their distinctive colouristic brilliance and their almost photographic quality. If you are lover of still-life and floral paintings, you will love her beautiful works of art.