As a rule, I avoid introducing someone with a modifier — gender, race, age, or any other — as I feel it diminishes individual achievement. We view “a talented artist” as one who has made it in the mainstream, while “a talented woman artist” suggests that the artist has earned a smaller piece of the pie.
But there are times when the qualifier enhances the accomplishment, as in the case of someone who has made it in a milieu where their entry is met with resistance. During the late 18th century, women’s participation in the art world was limited by the restrictions imposed upon them. And yet, there were a few whose talent and application propelled them to the forefront.
Such an artist is Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744 – 1818), known primarily for her still life paintings. The genre was considered the least intellectual in the hierarchy decreed by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and thus a suitable pursuit for a woman artist. Women were prohibited at the time from painting nude models, an essential skill for painting the higher genres.
Through the virtuosity of her technique and the visual impact of her work, she elevated the mundane subject matter to grandeur. Despite the lowly position of the genre, her precocious talent led to her unanimous acceptance into the Académie at the age of 26. She was one of only four women accepted into the Académie before the Revolution. Her two reception pieces were Attributes of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and Attributes of Music.
She gained the attention of collectors and fellow artists, and earned critical acclaim. When she exhibited at the Salon of 1771, she caught the eye of the exacting Denis Diderot, who said of her, “if all new members of the Royal Academy made a showing like Mademoiselle Vallayer’s, and sustained the same high level of quality, the Salon would look very different.”
In 1774, she began to paint flowers. Her aptitude for representational art and the delicacy of her renderings attracted the attention of Marie-Antoinette and members of the court. Although known for her still life painting, she also painted portraits. The one below, done in pastel, shows a sweetness and vulnerability seldom seen in state portraits of the Queen.
Vallayer-Coster lived discreetly and worked industriously. Her strategic diplomacy, as well as her court connections and the patronage of the Queen, served her well. She obtained studio space in the Louvre, rare for a woman at the time, and married a member of the bourgeoisie in the presence of the Queen.
And then came the Revolution.
She survived the horrors of the Reign of Terror, but the fall of the Ancien Régime deprived her of her primary patrons and led to the decline of her reputation. During the reign of Napoléon, the Empress Josephine did purchase two of her paintings. She lived simply and in relative obscurity, and devoted herself to floral painting.
In 1817, she exhibited her final painting Still Life with Lobster, in the Salon de Paris. A loyal Bourbon supporter to the end, she presented the painting to the restored King Louis XVIII. She died the following year at the age of 73, leaving a richly decorative heritage.