- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003) 571-576
[Access article in PDF]
Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette. The Frick Collection, New York City (21 January 2003-23 March 2003).
Eik Kahng and Marianne Roland Michel, eds., Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Dallas Museum of Art, 2002). 103 color and 262 black-and-white illus. $60 cloth.
The exhibition of still life paintings by Anne Vallayer-Coster held at the Frick Collection late last winter was the final American venue of a larger exhibition of the artist's work organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and held there and at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.,in 2002. (The show will travel to the Centre de La Vielle Charité in Marseille after leaving the Frick.) The first major exhibition ever devoted to this extraordinary French painter of the late eighteenth century, "Anne-Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette," and its accompanying catalogue of the same title, have substantially enhanced our awareness and understanding of the artist while offering a convincing demonstration of why her works were held in such regard during her lifetime. Immediately upon entering the galleries devoted to the exhibition at the Frick Collection, one could see the virtuosity with which Vallayer-Coster employed the language of still life as it had been developed in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The bold, decorative lines of her compositions, the richness of her colors and simulated textures, and the feats of illusionism she achieved in depictinga wide variety of objects, both natural and artificial, provided ample evidence of the attraction Vallayer-Coster's works must have held for the members of the Royal Academy who received her into their institution in 1770, as well as for the numerous collectors who purchased her paintings over the course of her long career.
The exhibition at the Frick Collection was considerably smaller and more focused than the two earlier stages of the tour: While the earlier, larger exhibition, curated by Eik Kahng of the Walters Art Museum (Baltimore), included many of Vallayer-Coster's portraits and comparative works by other artists, the show at the Frick, selected by its chief curator, Colin B. Bailey, concentrated upon Vallayer-Coster's still lifes, carefully chosen to provide a sense of the artist's range and the subtlety with which she explored the genre. With this shift from an all-inclusive, retrospective display to a focus upon the type of painting with which the artist was clearly most comfortable and most adept, the exhibition at the Frick encouraged visitors to approach the works from a more meditative standpoint, focusing less upon the overall development of the artist's work than upon the particular ways in which she deployed the language of still life. Vallayer-Coster's portraits were, by all recentaccounts, less successful artistically than her still-life paintings, and thus, perhaps, most expendable for display in the Frick's limited [End Page 571] special exhibition area. But one missed the opportunity to compare her works with those of her contemporaries, notably Jean-Siméon Chardin and Henri-Horace Roland Delaporte, the two artists with whose works Vallayer-Coster's had the greatest affinities. (The earlier exhibition venues had included comparative works by both of these artists.)
Given the Frick's small exhibition space, however, the group of works selected for display provided a cogent representation of the various types of still life in which Vallayer-Coster excelled: the flower pieces for which she was best known, including works both large and small as well as a group of floral studies in watercolor, gouache, and oil; paintings of dead animals in kitchen environments and in a single, large game piece; still lifes of food and table implements; trompe l'oeilterracotta reliefs; paintings of shells and other natural curiosities; and one magnificent example of her paintings of musical instruments, intended as a decorative allegory. The way in which these...