In the foreground, a small frond of purple coral rests on a table, establishing a solid base for a collection of aquatic objects, ones usually found floating in water, seemingly weightless and usually seen as if through a scrim. These curiosities might well have been the contents of a the collection of an amateur scientist in the 18th century but, none the less full of interest for that, at a time when most scientists were amateurs.
Anne Vallayer-Coster was a master of still life, not least because she was a great arranger of objects. The title she gave to Les Panches de mer (Plumes from the Sea) tells us how she wanted us to see these life forms out of their natural habitiat. Pale mauve fan-shaped corals form a backdrop resembling ferns, lighter ones in front are silhouetted against darker ones behind; hard shells and spiny corals are arranged like so many sprigs of flowers. Meanwhile, the sponge at right retains all its tactile qualities.
Her method, which so impressed her contemporaries and impresses us still, was to create a wealth of effects with very finely brushed strokes of oil paint; here the reds create a marvelous effect by drawing the eye to spaces within the shells, culminating in the lush sexual pink of the interior conch, reminding us that we are looking at the calcified remains of living, throbbing creatures. Vallayer-Coster’s style stands apart from other still life painters in its seamless harmony of illusionism with her deliberately decorative compositions. Painting with panache, indeed.
Anne Vallayer-Coster was twenty-five years old when she painted Les Panaches de Mer in 1769. The next year she was elected to the Royal Academy, an institution resistant to admitting women to its ranks; along with Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, she was one of only four women. In an official statement the members noted that Vallayer-Coster "painted as well as a man."( translation JL) Her work was admired both at court and among the rising merchant class. It was exhibited at the official Salon in 1771.
Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818) was born into a family of artists; her mother painted miniatures and her father Louis-Joseph Vallayer was related to the Gobelins of tapestry fame and goldsmith to the King.
Although still life painting was considered the least intellectual of genres, Vallayer-Coster dazzled viewers with her “precocious talent and the rave reviews” that greeted her workfrom, among other luminaries, Denis Diderot attracting the attention of Marie Antoinette. It was the Queen who signed the official marriage contract between Vallayer and Jean-Pierre-Sylvestre Coster, when the two married on April 21, 1781. Thanks to the Queen, Valley-Coster was given a choice apartment at the Louvre, then the royal residence in Paris, directly beneath the main gallery. All this would be changed soon after the Revolution when the monarchy was deposed and the building became a museum open to the public.
Due to her close association with Marie Anoinette, Vallayer-Coster's career was put on hold by the Revolution but she stayed in Paris and remained loyal to her Queen; she was allowed to resume exhibiting at the Salon in 1795, and continuing until the year before her death.
Anne Vallaey-Coster - Les Panaches de mer, 1769, Louvre Museum, Paris.