Dead Flowers

John Haber
in New York City

Anne Vallayer-Coster

Not long ago, a posh New York dealer held an opening for a woman painter. So, soon after, did one of its most distinguished museums.

On the surface, nothing had changed. The crowd tromped through Chelsea at its usual pace. Uptown at the Frick, little disturbed the silence. Piero della Francesca's towering Saint Simon, just a few rooms away, hardly deigned to look up from his book or to unwrinkle his fierce brow. Anne Vallayer-Coster's Still Life with Seashells and Coral (Musée du Louvre, 1769)

Unimpressed yourself? Take just a moment to compare the two centuries. It may help one imagine the achievement of Anne Vallayer-Coster.

Fame and fortune

Did I mention a dealer? Some twenty years ago, she all but defined today's art world. With Soho then poised, still precariously, between art's hangout and shopping mall, she offered a new vision—the gallery as exclusive club.

Its tall, narrow dimensions put one instantly in one's place. So did the gentleman at the desk, impeccably thin beneath his high forehead and tailored suit. Unlike the scruffy, obviously underpaid assistants elsewhere, he never once acknowledged everyday gallery traffic.

That assumes one could find one's way in, through the double door. Instinctively, one pulled on the right handle, then, when it refused to give, pushed in annoyance. A touch less sure of oneself, one reached for the left handle, finally getting it right on the fourth try. Clearly one had no business inside amid those who knew better.

One might well feel sheepish back then. From Minimalism and remote earthworks to the chaos of the East Village art scene, Modernism had all but decomposed. Suddenly Soho and painting were recovering their dominance, but briefly and for a new breed. Forget fine art as deductive logic or dense with meaning. When these new artists, pretty much all male, juxtaposed pop imagery and soft-core nudity, it refused to add up. Expressionism had turned down the heat.

A very cool twenty years later, the dealer's lavish Chelsea space indeed admits a woman, but do not expect a feminist assault. The artist does not reinterpret her male cohort's film noir to challenge the male gaze. She does not crash the gates with traditionally feminine crafts—or with untraditional media. She sticks to a bastion of high Modernism, abstract painting, in bright waves of color. Think of a collaboration of Brice Marden and Sol LeWitt on crack.

Well, okay, Postmodernism would lack half its challenge without Mary Boone. (I knew someone as trendy as you recognized her all along.) And if Karin Davie has defected to her from Marianne Boesky, fine. Davie's patterns allude to formalism, tapestry, and the chill surface of a transparency. They seem pleasant enough—although Sue Williams has placed Marden between quotes rather better. Yet they make one appreciate all the more a woman's quiet breakthrough more than two hundred years before.

Courage and connections

Born in 1744 to a goldsmith and jeweler, a mere craftsman and tradesman, Anne Vallayer-Coster challenged France's most rigid hierarchies. Before her, a rare successful woman painter usually had an influential artist as father and mentor, like Artemisia Gentileschi. Vallayer-Coster never so much as joined a studio. She managed to get some training from a well-known marine painter, Joseph Vernet, but she picked up still-life painting all but on her own. She entered the Royal Academy in her mid-twenties, as precocious as François Boucher had been—and one of only four women before the Revolution.

Still life back then had the least cachet of any genre, and the fame of its finest exponents had begun to fade. Yet somehow or other, she got Marie-Antoinette's patronage. (Even Boone may not sell to royalty so very often.) Despite her closeness to the ancien régime and France's hated monarch, she survived decades of bloodshed and shifting tastes. In fact, one of Vallayer-Coster's grandest works dates to the end of her life. It also reprises the motifs of her earliest art.

I want to stress her courage. I want to recover the shock of a prodigy in a politicized art scene, not unlike today. Frankly, I need all that to make her accessible today. Hey, I am talking about eighteenth-century flower painting here. The show, which began at the Dallas Museum of Art, has a fitting modesty. Its thirty-five paintings occupy the Frick's downstairs galleries. The rooms typically house intimate media, most recently with drawings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Nicolas Poussin.

I want to claim neither too much nor too little, because Vallayer-Coster demands it. She suggests the conflicts of a generation torn between Enlightenment and monarchy. On the eve of Revolution, she remains fascinating and yet stubbornly remote.

One can see the conflicts in her personal trajectory. This woman definitely knew how to play people and connections. She married into wealth and power. Her beauty surely did no harm to her career either.

She did chafe at getting stuck with the lowest of genres. Still, after a few failed attempts at the big game, she retreated to her flowers. The retrospective includes only four works besides still life. Each depicts sculpture in low relief—so more eighteenth-century trompe l'oeil (or its contemporary variety) after all.


One can see the conflicts, of course, in her art as well. No wonder it looks so strange to modern eyes.

One expects a still life to bring hidden meanings. In the Renaissance, flowers might have stood for the purity of the Virgin. From Surrealism and Pop Art, simple objects of desire open onto a world of dreams or of brand names. One expects, too, the surprises that hide meaning—the knife about to plunge in one's lap, the play of mirrors, those random juxtapositions at Mary Boone.

One expects flowers to bear the miracle of light, from Dutch interiors to Claude Monet. Perhaps above all, one expects a sense of transience. It comes with a glance inside a camera obscura, the pregnant light and passing shadows of Jan Vermeer, or the loose brush and soap bubbles of Jean-Siméon Chardin.

Vallayer-Coster has all of that, somewhat. Sure, objects may lie by the edge of Chardin's trademark stone ledge. Her knife has just sliced into warm meat. Her candle has suddenly gone out. Her vase holds the twisted reflection of a window—or of the painter herself, barely visible.

Nonetheless, her art looks cool and composed because it is, much as one should not ignore the quietude in George Stubbs then just because he loved horses. It reflects not on the fragility of the passing moment but on its dead certainty. Like the painting itself, the represented object is a precious thing, a thing known and possessed.

Chardin had restored a lighter range of colors, toward yellow and brown. Yet by 1700 still life had mostly adopted icier tones and cooler reveries, and so does Vallayer-Coster. She loves dark woods and cool blues. She avoids contrasting using contrasting colors to define shadows. At her best, in an oil on paper, the bright white and greenish-purple bring gillyflowers alive. Mostly, however, she wants her flowers as firm and as blue as porcelain.

Stability and surfeit

One looking for inwardness had better expect disappointment. She does not engage a viewer's glance. She likes low vantage points, appropriate to work that may have hung over a doorway. She plays down backgrounds not, like Chardin, to imply indeterminate space, but to bring what matters forward. One does not share the space of this art but look upon it.

The show includes a painting of the artist at work, intent on the viewer as on another slab of meat. As a self-portrait, it would offer a striking challenge. It turns out to come from another hand.

For Vallayer-Coster, things have a character of their own, apart from the passing scene. Her well-cooked meat is not going anywhere fast. A painting of musical instruments does refer to one of the five senses, traditionally associated with chance impressions. She extinguishes the candle, which would intrude the sense of sight. Yet one remembers the contrasting veneers of different woods. Elsewhere she paints an extravagant collection of coral and shells, things that took years to come into being and will last for decades to come.

She wants things to look grand, a product of stability and surfeit. Often she starts with a horizontal arrangement, along a table or ledge, as the base for an overflowing central pyramid. She scrubs her surfaces as clean as the fruit in a Soho eatery. The sheer size of the works denies any association of still life with privacy.

The results makes perfect sense for the Enlightenment, much as for Jean-Antoine Houdon. The coral and shells create what one today would call a virtual museum. Philosophy had grounded knowledge on the senses, but in order to create a world of experience and of things.

The results also suit an elite of bankers and aristocrats, sure of what they own. They had no need to reflect on vanitas. They owned the objects, the paintings, and, they thought, a nation.

Knocking still life off its pedestal

Postmodern criticism has worked hard to knock progress off its pedestal, like one more vase of flowers. To Michel Foucault and others, the Enlightenment's all-seeing gaze and cataloguing of appearances stands for repressive control. The masculine bluster of Romanticism and the avant-garde are waiting in the wings.

When it comes to the Revolution, the idea has an intuitive appeal. A feminist has every right to remember the relentless violence. Even the ranking of genres takes on political meaning. From Jacques-Louis David to Eugène Delacroix, truly serious painting engaged men of action—Socrates ready to die or Napoleon ready to kill. David cleared his sets of anything so feminine as decoration. Dead flowers would seem downright ominous.

For the Revolution, Marie-Antoinette and her circle represented foreigners intruding on the greatness of French. She also stood for the feminization of serious matters. Perhaps it only makes sense that the eighteenth century actually had a brief flurry of leading women artists. In her own lifetime, Vallayer-Coster gave way to the fame of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the portrait painter.

However, Vallayer-Coster's partial success and mixed allegiances show how complex the story really is and how early it began. She even anticipates the esthetics of the new century. Just as one looks on her scenes from the outside, one sits in the audience of David's epic theater. One stares comfortably at a Victorian nude. At the same time, one can no longer afford illusion rather than things, just as David places sincerity of feeling and acting above passive entertainment.

The postmodern critique makes sense, then, but art and science fully anticipate it. They reject the certainty of ownership of the ancien régime, for the know well the uncertainty of self-knowledge. While Vallayer-Coster was working on those twenty-four distinct species of coral and shells, scientists were changing their minds about how to classify animal versus mineral life. Then again, even a certain postmodern gallery has let in a woman painter.

I suspect that most people will give this retrospective a quick glance and move on. I still have trouble with the century's relatively cool, flat, static art. Still, I want to go back and give the coral another look myself. Maybe I, too, shall change my schema.

"Regime change": a postscript

Speaking of, er, "regime change," the Frick has announced the departure of its director, Samuel Sachs II. Sachs deserves credit for opening up a great institution without once spoiling it as a place to see and to contemplate art.

I might never have noticed the scope of the changes if I had not now tried to add them up. In recent years the museum has rehung the collection and added Friday evening hours. In place of obtrusive labeling, it allows every visitor an audio guide to the entire collection, as part of the ticket price. It has the best museum Web site I know, a colorful new magazine for members, and plans to modernize the reference library. With a front desk for information and the ticket counter moved further inside, even the entrance has become more inviting. I usually find the door on my first try.

The number of temporary exhibitions and their quality have vastly increased, sometimes pushing the space to all that it can handle. Each has concentrated on a few works and a central idea. One can hardly forget The Medieval Housebook, Velázquez paintings from the New York museums, and variations on a theme by El Greco. The changes have paid off in bigger audiences as well.

The pace of change may have scared the Frick. I, too, sometimes miss the days when it felt like my own private enclave. Though no fault of Sachs, I really miss a Pontormo portrait, a long-term loan that ended up on the market and thence at the Getty. Its dreamy expression suited the quiet and intensity of the place.

Will the Frick drop a few plans? Fair enough. As museum empires retrench, speculation about an underground gallery below the garden no doubt sounds silly. Still, I very much hope that the museum does not go back on the changes to date. If others now get to decide along with me who really painted The Polish Rider, I welcome them. Sachs's tenure constitutes an amazing achievement.

I admit to personal bias. The Frick admits me to its press list. After about eight years, a few hundred reviews, thousands of visitors a day, and at least a quarter of a million words, very few museums and galleries do. After all, this resource exists—quite arrogantly, I must say—"only" online. Perhaps I can sympathize better with a woman artist stuck in the Royal Academy's lowest genre. At least she never went digital.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette" ran through March 23, 2003, at The Frick Collection. Karin Davie's paintings ran through December 21, 2002, at Mary Boone.


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