Visitors to the Kimbell Art Museum will see a new painting on the walls, and it's not a landscape, religious icon, or bowl of fruit. The museum has acquired a work called Still Life with Mackerel, a 1787 painting by French artist Anne Vallayer-Coster.
Its subject matter is rare among 18th century French still lifes — it is, in fact, a painting of fish.
"Vallayer-Coster's charming and original composition celebrates the arrival of mackerel in Paris in springtime, when wealthy Parisians enjoyed the freshest specimens of this delectable fish," the Kimbell says in a release. "The noble table displays a silver oil and vinegar cruet stand, crystal stemware, a silver verrière (wine glass cooler), a lemon and its reflection, a sprig of orange blossoms and a brioche (a rich pastry).
"The still life whets the viewer's appetite for a simple but sumptuous feast with accoutrements that evoke an elegant, restrained opulence that marks the end of the century."
The work is among the most beautiful and innovative by Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818), considered one of the foremost still-life painters of 18th-century France and a favorite of a particularly famous French queen, the museum says. She was "esteemed for the vigor of her compositions, her magical ability to imitate nature, her fluid and varied brushwork, and her remarkable skills as a colorist," they say in the release.
"Anne Vallayer-Coster is one of the very few female artists who managed to negotiate the powerful authority of the Royal Academy in Paris and to exhibit their work at the Salon," says Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell, in the release. "Her recognition as a leading painter of still life paralleled her contemporary Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun's renown as a portraitist — both were favorites of Queen Marie-Antoinette. We are thrilled that her Still Life with Mackerel will join Vigée Le Brun's Self Portrait as a highlight in the Kimbell's collection."
Born in Paris in 1744, Vallayer-Coster grew up in artistic and aristocratic circles. Although little is known about her training, she was largely self-taught, and by the age of 26, was accepted as a member of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture — a distinction very few women had achieved.
"Although many women in 18th-century France were, in fact, practicing artists, their peremptory exclusion from the official, sanctioned and prestigious institution of the Academy limited their opportunities for training, public exposure, and patronage," the museum says. "For reasons of propriety, women were excluded from life-drawing classes after the nude model, and thus effectively shunted to the so-called lesser genres, especially portraiture and still life."
But thanks to her superior skills as a still-life painter, she earned recognition and caught the eye of numerous aristocrats at the French court, most notably Queen Marie Antoinette. Her career "came to a pause" with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the museum says, but despite her royalist loyalties, she maintained her practice.
"Whereas her circumstances as a woman and a royalist may have limited Vallayer-Coster's career," the Kimbell says, "she was esteemed above all for her flower pieces and still lifes, and her exceptional refinement, range of invention, and sophistication as a painter were acclaimed in her own day, as they are progressively acknowledged in our own."
Still Life with Mackerel was a gift to the Kimbell from Fort Worth billionaire Sid R. Bass in honor of Kay and Ben Fortson, longtime leaders of the Kimbell Art Foundation's board of directors. It is on view in the Louis I. Kahn Building. Admission to the museum's collection is free.