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Anne Vallayer-Coster

“Bas-relief, vase, fruit, legumes and rabbit/ Under your magic fingers have their very features.” (M. Guichard)

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About Anne Vallayer-Coster

Anne Vallayer was born in France in 1744. Until she was ten, Anne lived with her parents and her three sisters on the grounds of the Gobelins, where she grew up around all kinds of artists. The Gobelins was a royal factory where tapestries were made. Tapestries are large woven fabrics that often feature pictures. In the past, people hung them on walls as decorations and to help keep rooms warm. They didn’t have electric heating like we do now!
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Anne most likely picked up some knowledge of art from her father and her mother who helped him in his business. Some people think Anne took lessons with a woman named Madeleine Basseporte, who was known for painting small portraits, flowers, birds and butterflies. She almost definitely studied with a famous landscape painter named Joseph Vernet and undoubtedly had seen the work of still life painter Jean-Simeon Chardin.
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It was a pretty gutsy move when Anne applied to become a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1770. Not only did she lack formal training as an artist, but she was also quite young—just twenty-six—not to mention a woman. Women weren’t allowed to study or teach at the Academy and it only accepted a few women as members. But Anne was so talented, they couldn’t say no. She was unanimously elected. That means everyone voted for her to join.
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Once Anne became a member of the Academy, her work started to appear in the Salon, the official art show of Paris’s Academy of Fine Arts. The Salon was the most important show of its kind in Europe and it was a great honor to have your work included. Anne’s work attracted the attention of none other than the queen of France herself. Queen Marie Antoinette hired Anne to paint her portrait and also helped her get a space to work in the Louvre, a royal palace turned art gallery. When Anne married a lawyer named Jean-Pierre-Sylvestre Coster, the queen even signed their marriage contract.
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Around this time, there were two other women artists working at court who specialized in portrait painting—Adelaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. So Anne thought it made sense to stick with what she knew best. And what she knew best was still life painting. Among the paintings she submitted when she applied to the Academy were two pictures dedicated to the arts. One included different objects representing visual arts like painting and sculpture. The other included objects representing music. The items in these paintings looked so real that a writer dedicated a poem to Anne and said that she had “magic fingers.”
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As an artist, Anne was especially talented with composition. Composition is the way things are arranged in a picture. She was also skilled in using color and imitating different textures. Anne used all three of these elements to make the things in her paintings seem like real objects in space rather than flat pictures. This is a special effect called trompe-l’oeil, a French phrase that means “a trick of the eye.”
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Licensed Images Information

The Attributes of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, 1769 | Oil on canvas | 35 ½ x 47 ¾ inches | Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Attributes of Music, 1770 | Oil on canvas | 34 ½ x 45 ¾ inches | Musée du Louvre, Paris
Still-Life with Tuft of Marine Plants, Shells and Corals, 1769 | Oil on canvas | 51 x 38 inches | Musée du Louvre, Paris
Still Life with Round Bottle, 1770 | Oil on canvas | Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
Bouquet of Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with Peaches and Grapes, 1776 | 47 5/8 x 44 5/8 inches | Oil on canvas | Dallas Museum of Art
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Keyword:
Still Life

Still life is used to describe art that depicts objects like flowers, food, books, bowls, or vases, rather than people or places. Even though the phrase includes the word “life,” most still life objects are actually inanimate, which means that they aren’t alive at all! There are a few exceptions to this. Some still lifes, for instance, include animals or insects. There are a lot of different ways to approach still life. Some artists, like Anne Vallayer Coster, use trompe-l’oeil effects to make objects seem real. Others purposefully use bold outlines and solid blocks of color to make objects look flat. And lots of artists do something in between the two!

Activities and Questions

  • Choose some objects in your house and set them up carefully on a table. Draw or paint them. Rearrange the objects and try again.
  • Try drawing an object that looks three-dimensional. Now try drawing the same object but this time make it look flat.
  • Draw a picture of an inanimate object in your house. Ask a friend or relative to draw the same object. Compare your pictures.
  • When Anne Vallayer-Coster was painting, the people who had the most power in the art world—the men who ran the academies, galleries, and museums—believed that some subject matter was more important than other subject matter. They thought that history and religion were the most important subjects for art. What do you think?
  • Why do you think that artists make still lifes? What are some reasons people might want to look at pictures of things that actually exist? [/toggle]