A still life by Anne Vallayer-Coster that was lost to scholars for two centuries: ‘The work she considered her finest’
One of the most sought-after artists of her day, Vallayer-Coster was a favourite of Marie Antoinette — yet somehow survived the French Revolution, and later sold two of her greatly admired flower paintings to the Empress Joséphine
When the artist Anne Vallayer married the lawyer Jean-Pierre Silvestre Coster in 1781, the ceremony was attended by no less a figure than the Queen of France. It took place at the Palace of Versailles, and Marie Antoinette even signed the marriage contract as a witness.
Vallayer was in her mid-thirties at the time and contributed a dowry of 34,000 livres: a considerable sum, testament to the commercial success of her paintings. A year before the wedding, the queen had granted the artist the privilege of a studio and lodgings at the Louvre (then a royal residence). Vallayer simultaneously became a painter to the court of Marie Antoinette and received an annual stipend.
She is remembered today chiefly for her stunning floral still lifes, but she led a life every bit as interesting as her paintings. In surviving the French Revolution, for example, during which the queen was guillotined in 1793, she showed no little political acumen.
On 15 June 2023, her still life Nature morte au vase d’albâtre rempli de fleurs avec sur une table plusieurs espèces de fruits, comme ananas, pêches et raisins will form part of the Maîtres Anciens: Peintures — Sculptures sale at Christie’s in Paris. It is the painting that the artist herself thought was her best.
Vallayer was born in Paris in 1744, the second of four daughters born to a goldsmith (father) and a miniature painter (mother). She received minimal training, in the form of casual studies in drawing with the botanical artist Madeleine Basseporte, and in painting with the landscapist Claude-Joseph Vernet.
In 1770, aged 26, she presented herself for membership at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, the most august institution in French art. She submitted two allegorical paintings — Instruments de musique (illustrated below) and Les attributs de la peinture, de la sculpture et de l’architecture, both now in the Louvre — and, rather against the odds, was accepted. Since the academy’s founding more than a century earlier, it had seen barely a handful of female members.
Membership gave artists access to the biennial Salon exhibition, which served as a platform for exposure and the sale of their work.
Vallayer (or Vallayer-Coster as she was known after her marriage) would go on to show at every Salon until the Revolution, usually to reviews as positive as that penned by the esteemed critic Denis Diderot on her debut. ‘She astonishes us as much as she enchants us,’ wrote Diderot in 1771.
The positive notices soon brought Vallayer to the attention of Marie Antoinette, who became queen upon her husband Louis XVI’s accession to the throne in 1774. Unfortunately, almost all of the portraits she painted of the royal duo are now lost.
Over time, Marie Antoinette would come to count another female painter, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, as her favourite portraitist. Vallayer-Coster continued to be a painter in demand, however, especially in the genre of still life and especially among other members of the royal court. Regular patrons included the Prince of Conti, the Comte de Merle, and the Marquis de Véri.
The opulence of flower paintings such as the one coming to Christie’s appealed directly to aristocrats looking to decorate their lavish homes.
Vallayer-Coster has sometimes been compared to her compatriot Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, perhaps the most famous still-life painter of the 18th century. (As an old man, he had been among the members who approved her entry to the Académie Royale.)
In her early years, Vallayer-Coster certainly seems to have courted such comparisons, with her still-life pictures of kitchen utensils and dead game. From 1775, however, the year she exhibited her first flower paintings, she made a definitive break from her senior’s influence — particularly his subdued and earthy palette, which she replaced with much brighter and more varied colours. (Chardin painted just one surviving floral still life across his career.)
Vallayer-Coster produced Nature morte au vase d’albâtre at the peak of her powers — and exhibited it in public for its one and only time at the 1783 Salon.
It depicts an elaborately carved mahogany table with a marble top, on which sits an alabaster vase containing a glorious bouquet bursting with flowers of seemingly every variety. To the left of the vase is a bunch of white grapes; to the right, a pineapple and three peaches.
The vase is ornamented with French gilt-bronze mounts of a child satyr holding up a swag of flora and fruits. The bouquet is composed of meticulously studied, exquisitely rendered roses, irises, lilacs, carnations, hollyhocks, dahlias, bluebells and hydrangeas — and makes for a rainbow of brilliant colours, set off by the chocolate-brown scumbling of the wall behind them.
The painting displays Vallayer-Coster’s skill at reproducing with verisimilitude the cool, hard polish of marble and alabaster; the glittering surface of cast bronze; the moist firmness of grapes; the spiky body and leaves of a pineapple; the soft downy skin of peaches; and the delicate perishability of flower petals.
The work received universal praise from critics. One reviewer said he was ‘tempted to pick the artist’s flowers in order to crown her with them’. Tellingly, Vallayer-Coster chose never to part with this painting.
Not much is recorded about her life during the Revolution, but her connections with the royal family must suddenly have turned from an advantage into a liability.
She is known, however, to have sold two flower paintings to Empress Joséphine for the latter’s chateau at Malmaison in 1804 — suggesting that she deftly found a way to negotiate those turbulent times.
Vallayer-Coster would never again achieve the success of the 1770s and 1780s, but it’s worth mentioning one further painting, which she exhibited at the Salon of 1817: Nature morte au homard (now in the Louvre, illustrated below). As well as the titular lobster, it features a stem of lilies: an allusion to the recent restoration of the French monarchy, lilies being a well-known symbol for the House of Bourbon. The artist gave the work to King Louis XVIII — proof that her political antennae remained sensitive to the end.
She died in 1818, aged 73. Upon her husband Jean-Pierre’s death six years later, their art collection was put up for sale, including more than 100 pictures by Vallayer-Coster herself. Charles Paillet, the dealer at the auction, hailed her floral still lifes in particular as ‘so beautiful, so perfect and so true’.
He also explained why the artist had retained Nature morte au vase d’albâtre throughout her life: ‘She steadfastly refused the repeated demands of those illustrious figures and distinguished art lovers who so ardently wished to possess it, for she had no desire to relinquish the work that she considered her finest.’
The painting was purchased at the 1824 sale by somebody with the surname of Coster, presumably a member of Jean-Pierre’s family. It was then lost to scholars for two centuries — until its consignment for this spring’s sale (we now know that it was bought by the father of the current owner in the late 1940s).
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It is one of a number of rediscoveries that will feature in the Maîtres Anciens: Peintures – Sculptures sale. Others include a painting of Saint Jerome by José de Ribera; a landscape by Pierre Patel the Elder; and a late-15th-century Pietà sculpture from the circle of Gil de Siloé.
In the case of the Vallayer-Coster still life, the painting represents the flowering of an artist in full bloom.