In spring 2019, the Kimbell acquired Anne Vallayer-Coster’s 1787 painting Still Life with Mackerel. The compelling work is among the most beautiful and innovative by one of the foremost still-life painters of eighteenth-century France. Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818) was esteemed for the vigor of her compositions, her magical ability to imitate nature, her fluid and varied brushwork, and her remarkable skills as a colorist. The painting was a gift from Sid R. Bass in honor of Kay and Ben Fortson, longtime leaders of the Kimbell Art Foundation’s board of directors. The work first went on view at the museum on March 8, in celebration of International Women’s Day.
Vallayer-Coster is one of the very few female artists who managed to negotiate the powerful authority of the Royal Academy in Paris—to which she was admitted in 1770, at the age of twenty-six—and to exhibit their work at the Salon. Her recognition as a leading painter of still life paralleled her contemporary Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun’s renown as a portraitist, so it is fitting that Still Life with Mackerel has joined Vigée Le Brun’s Self-Portrait as a highlight in the Kimbell’s collection. Both women were likely largely self-taught, yet each cultivated a roster of patrons that included numerous aristocrats at the French court, most notably Queen Marie Antoinette. Though Vallayer-Coster’s circumstances as a woman and a royalist—a negative after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789—may have limited her career, her range of invention and exceptional sophistication as a painter were acclaimed in her own day, as they are progressively acknowledged in our own.
The Kimbell’s painting is undoubtedly one of the most refined pictures produced by the artist. Still lifes of fish were rare in eighteenth-century France. Vallayer-Coster’s charming and original composition celebrates the arrival of mackerel in Paris in springtime, when wealthy Parisians enjoyed the freshest specimens of this delectable fish. The noble table displays a silver oil and vinegar cruet stand, crystal stemware, a silver verrière (wine glass cooler), a lemon and its reflection, a sprig of orange blossoms, and a brioche (a rich pastry). The still life whets the viewer’s appetite for a simple but sumptuous feast with accoutrements that evoke an elegant, restrained opulence that marks the end of the century.
Vallayer-Coster’s virtuosity as a colorist is evident throughout the work. The round and undulating forms of the composition are tempered by the prevailing cool, silvery tonality of the painting, in which she explores how these tones vary according to material and reflections of light—from glass and metal to the dazzling handling of the mutable skin of the plump fish, with unblended strokes of brilliant vermilion and ocher near the gills, indicating its freshness. The reflections are sensitively observed, and the white napkin or tablecloth likewise partakes in the nuances of light, with a delicacy of touch. The damask cloth with the madder red monogram cleverly mimics the type of linen the artist would have maintained in her own household.