Sunday, May 22, 2011

Anne Vallayer Coster, and Bas-Relief Imité

Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes, by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Despite the fatuous and dreamy description by Jules de Goncourt of the eighteenth century as being "the century of woman and her caressing domination over manners and custom," there is evidently some truth to the notion that women wielded influence over politics, culture, government and art at that time. Elizabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun spoke of her glory days in her memoirs, saying that "Woman reigned then: the Revolution dethroned them."

Detail from Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes

In the court of Marie-Antoinette, there were three reigning women artists. Along with Vigée L Brun and Adélaide Labille-Guiard, Anne Vallayer-Coster was one of the most prominent still-life painters of the day.

Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes (above) displays her mastery of different genres. In it we can see her combining elements of flower painting, still life and bas-relief imités. While her flowers are rendered in layers of delicate glazes, her terracotta vase is treated alla prima, with opaque paint and low impasto.

Perhaps no other eighteenth-century French artist rivaled Vallayer-Coster's facility in painting in a range of styles, particularly in the decorative genres of still life and flower painting.  Although I find her portraits to be weak, she elevated the traditional genre of flower painting to create works of exceptional refinement. I also believe her work as a trompe l'oeil painter has perhaps not fully been appreciated, so I'm concentrating here on some of those paintings.

Amazingly, she produced some of her most beautiful and masterly paintings before she applied to the Académie, at a time when she had neither frequented an academician's atelier nor even studied at the Académie.

When painting her bas-relief imités, she first roughly sketched the forms with a liquid brown paint that served to delineate features and shadows. She then used impasto for highlights to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. I also love her trompe l'oeil frames, and the way her fauness rests her hooves on it in the painting above.

Her painted bas-reliefs were based on actual works by artists such as Clodion
Given that Vallayer-Coster produced many versions of these scenes, there must have been a high demand for this type of work at the time. A second version of the same scene is shown in the painting is below.

Although she was clearly influenced by Chardin in her still life work, I hope you can see that with joyful paintings such as these, she never fell into slavish imitation. Her technique reflects that of an artist finding her own way, while epitomizing the highest expression of Rococo elegance.

Bas-relief imité was common in Still Life painting, as in this excellent work by Gerard van Spaendonck


  1. Love, love, LOVE her work! Her use of subtle color, the ability to give the illusion of cold stone and smooth terra cotta. I also love the play with the frame! Fantastic post!

  2. I like the way she juxtaposed her dry brush technique on the stone next to sleek translucent glazes for the flowers. It creates a nice trompe l'oeil effect.

  3. Just amazing bas-reliefs. I would love to see them in person.

  4. Wonderful post (and I equally enjoyed the large images, Alan!!)! There is a great and beautiful book published in 2002 worth picking up for those interested in her and her work:
    ISBN #9780300093292

  5. Jeff; I always try to provide images that are large enough to be of some use.