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Marie Antoinette's court painter dazzles DMA

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, Reporter: Her name may be unknown to the thousands of visitors expected to see her work at the Dallas Museum of Art, but in her day, Anne Vallayer-Coster was widely regarded as one of the great still life painters in Paris. Her career was launched in 1770 when she applied for membership in the exclusive French Art Academy with, among other paintings, a four foot tall lifelike composition of seashells and coral that seems to jump off the canvas.

Eik Kahng, Guest Curator: It's stupefying. In fact, it really tends to make people mute.

Sprague: Eik Kahng is a former DMA staff member and the guest curator of the Vallayer-Coster exhibition, which came to Dallas after a showing at the National Gallery.

Kahng: I noticed at the exhibition in Washington that people are very attracted to the painting and they simply come and stand close to it and stare at it for a very, very long period. And I think part of the attraction is just trying to figure out how she accomplished this extraordinary illusion.

Sprague: Vallayer-Coster was just 25 years old when she finished this still-life. And no one really understands how she learned to paint. Although she studied with the great French landscape artist Joseph Vernet, scholar Marianne Roland Michel says that doesn't explain the force of her early work.

Marianne Roland Michel, Guest Curator: We know a painting that is six years previous that's OK, nice painting, but nothing exceptional, not very well balanced, not very well composed and suddenly she has this strength in her brush, in her colors and we really don't know.

Sprague: That strength never faltered in Vallayer-Coster's five-decade career. Critics point to her use of light, color and technique. University of Texas at Arlington art professor Beth Wright admires how meticulous Vallayer-Coster was with detail.

Beth Wright, UTA Art History Professor: For example, in her still life of seashells or of lobster, she'll have ground up THINGS that will give it that grainy surface that you would have, like barnacles on top of a lobster. Or, she'll have different grains in the priming, so you'll have a sense of the paint surface coming out towards you.

Sprague: Visitors to the exhibition are noticing how life-like her objects are. Gia Russell is a college student in Irving. This is her first viewing of Anne Vallayer-Coster's work.

Gia Russell, Museum Visitor: They're gorgeous. They're really pretty. They look like pictures. They look really real. Until you get up real close and you see the crackles and the smear from the canvas and the oil.

Sprague: Gia says she particularly likes Vallayer-Coster's celebrated floral paintings, often enormous bouquets in brilliant colors and stunning detail. One 18th century critic's comments emblazoned on a gallery wall read, "Her flowers are so fresh, so vibrant, so brilliant, that one is tempted to pick them and make a crown for her." Actually, a lot of critics seemed to adore not just Vallayer-Coster's work, but the artist herself. Again, UTA's Beth Wright...

Wright: There's a tendency to say she has the grace of her sex. Her paintings are as modest and lovely as she is. So there's this real overlay about what sort of subjects are appropriate for a still life painter and for a still life painter who's a woman and that's a very interesting question.

Sprague: There was a not-so-subtle sexism in the French art community of the 18th century. Women were mostly relegated to still-life painting, which was the lowest rung on the art world ladder. The French Academy would only tolerate four women members at any one time. And usually, women had to get married early if their careers were to prosper. But Anne Vallayer-Coster waited until she was 37.

Wright: So she's making her career as an independent woman, not as the wife of someone who already is in with the dealers or in with the other artists, so it's really a very unusual kind of career for an 18th century woman artist.

Sprague: It helped that Vallayer-Coster enjoyed the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette, who paid for the artist's studio at the Louvre. Their relationship was cut short by the Queen's execution, but curator Eik Kahng says it was nevertheless important.

Kahng: It was a formative period for the artist. So this in many ways is the height of her career in the early maturity of her career that she has the support of the queen and I think that's why it was so important in establishing her as someone that other collectors would be interested in having an example of.

Sprague: Although Vallayer-Coster survived to see King Louis XVIII regain the throne in 1814, some scholars believe the Napoleonic Era crushed much of the interest in feminine still-lifes. They weren't heroic enough for popular culture. A number of Vallayer-Coster's works were lost. In fact, the genesis of this exhibit was the DMA's 1998 purchase of two floral still-lifes that had re-emerged sometime in the last 30 years. Dallas art collector Michael Rosenberg had just tried to acquire the works himself.

Michael Rosenberg, Art Collector: I saw them in the studio of an antiques and old master dealer. They were in his office in Paris, France. At that time, they were asking $1.3 million and I offered him $1 million cash on the spot but they decided weren't willing to compromise at that point.

Sprague: At the time, curator Eik Kahng worked at the DMA. She was able to negotiate a price break for the Museum, which purchased the paintings with financial assistance form Rosenberg. Kahng then oversaw publication of the first ever catalog of Vallayer-Coster's works. She is among those hoping the research will prompt renewed enthusiasm for Vallayer-Coster and other women artists of her time. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.

To contact Suzanne Sprague, please send emails to ssprague@kera.org.

NOTE: "ANNE VALLAYER-COSTER: PAINTER TO THE COURT OF MARIE ANTOINETTE" CONTINUES AT THE D-M-A THROUGH JANUARY FIFTH. IT THEN TRAVELS TO NEW YORK AND MARSEILLE, FRANCE.