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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.

Anne Vallayer-Coster

Born in Paris in 1744, Anne Vallayer (later Vallayer-Coster, upon her marriage in 1781) was the daughter of a goldsmith employed by the royal Gobelins Manufactory who later opened a shop near the Louvre and Tuileries Palace. Through her family, Vallayer-Coster came into contact with various eminent persons in both the artistic community and aristocratic circles. Little is known about her training, and it is likely that she was largely self-taught. By the age of 26, she was received and accepted as a member of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture). Very few women had previously achieved this distinction.

Although many women in 18th-century France were, in fact, practicing artists, their peremptory exclusion from the official, sanctioned and prestigious institution of the Academy limited their opportunities for training, public exposure and patronage. It also prevented them from engaging in the genres considered to be most valued—above all history painting, which was rooted in the study of the human figure. For reasons of propriety, women were excluded from life-drawing classes after the nude model, and thus effectively shunted to the so-called lesser genres, especially portraiture and still life. 

Upon her first exhibition at the Salon, Vallayer-Coster’s superior skills as a still-life painter were resoundingly commended. Her first two finished canvases exhibited—Attributes of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and Attributes of Music (1769 and 1770, Musée du Louvre), were highly accomplished works demonstrating her virtuosity in rendering textures and brilliant color and evident homages to the pre-eminent still-life painter Chardin’s similar grand allegories of 1765. Likewise, her Still Life with Mackerel could be compared with the simple kitchen still lifes that Chardin produced in the last years of his career. These intimate paintings contrast with the floral compositions for which Vallayer was renowned—two of these, showing lavish arrangements of flowers in magnificent vessels, are in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art.

The roster of patrons that Vallayer-Coster cultivated includes numerous aristocrats at the French court, most notably Queen Marie Antoinette. Her career came to a pause with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and she took temporary refuge on the outskirts of Paris. Despite her royalist loyalties, Vallayer-Coster maintained her practice. Whereas her circumstances as a woman and a royalist may have limited Vallayer-Coster’s career,  her flower pieces and still lifes were still held in high esteem. Her exceptional refinement, range of invention and sophistication as a painter were acclaimed in her own day, as they are progressively acknowledged in our own.