Anne Vallayer-Coster at The Frick Collection

Anne Vallayer-Coster, Still Life With Seashells and Coral (1769), oil on canvas; courtesy The Frick Collection

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I’m willing to bet my Observer paycheck that the same number of people who attended the exhibition of still lifes by Evaristo Baschenis, a 17th-century Italian painter, a few years back at the Met–not many–will be visiting the Frick Collection’s current exhibition, Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette .

I don’t mean to imply that the Vallayer-Coster show, which focuses exclusively on her still-life paintings, isn’t top-notch. It is, one might say, typically Frickian in its quality, though the exhibition was actually organized by the Dallas Museum of Art. Nor do I want to suggest that there’s something inherently unsexy about still-life painting. The verisimilitude of Vallayer-Coster’s paintings will delight those who do encounter them.

What all but guarantees Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette a modest audience is a lack of marquee value. Vallayer-Coster isn’t a name likely to roll off the tongue, even of those conversant with art history. (The patron, Marie Antoinette, provides the only star power here.) This is a specialist’s show: The paintings require an eye attuned not so much to a specific genre as to what the artist brings to it. The pleasures of the work are subtle. Seen among the paintings of her contemporaries, Vallayer-Coster wouldn’t make much of an impression. Seen on its own and given ample space, the painting is allowed to announce itself and the artist’s gift made clear.

Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818) was accepted by the prestigious Royal Academy at the age of 26. This makes her a prodigy and a special case. But how good of a painter was she? A quick jaunt up the Frick’s staircase confirms that she lacked Chardin’s uncanny gift for animating form; nor did she achieve the unyielding exactitude of the Dutch and Flemish painters she so admired. Vallayer-Coster’s art is considerably less intense, though it can be spectacular in its ambitions. Paintings like Still Life with Lobster (1817) and, especially, Still Life with Seashells and Coral (1769), rebuke the hierarchy that placed still-life at the bottom rung of viable painterly subjects.

Clearly relishing the challenge of depicting a variety of objects in a single setting, Vallayer-Coster was better at painting some things than others. Steel, glass and porcelain were not her strong suits; neither were dead animals–the notable exception being lobsters, whose reddish-orange coloration and gnarled features inspired her to breathtaking moments of painterly lucidity.

Flowers were her thing. A small undated study of gillyflowers, done with oil on paper, is unusual in its angularity and density of surface. More representative is a nearby bouquet from 1789: Suffused with a languid opulence, the picture is sensual and hedonistic, but not overly so. One can’t quite work up a passion for Vallayer-Coster’s art; indeed, passion seems an inappropriate response. A polite admiration is called for, and that’s exactly the response the organizers of this sterling exhibition have made possible.

© 2003 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 16, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.

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