Still Life with Mackerel (1787) by Anne Vallayer-CosterKimbell Art Museum
Looking forward to spring . . . and your next delicious meal? Take a close look at a recent Kimbell acquisition.
Still Life with Mackerel is among the most beautiful works by Anne Vallayer-Coster, the foremost still-life painter in France at the end of the 18th century, who was especially esteemed for her flower paintings.
Vallayer-Coster's magical ability to imitate nature and her skill as a colorist are on display in this seemingly casual arrangement. The artist orchestrates curving shapes to create a balanced and dynamic composition, unified with cool, silvery tonalities. The play of light on different materials—from crystal, to metal, to the mutable skin of the fish—is brilliantly observed.
The mackerel show off Vallayer-Coster's lively application of paint. Look at their brilliant color—vermillion and ocher—near the gills, indicating freshness! And note the luminous white and gray strokes of the underbelly, just below the mackerel's striped back.
French still lifes with fish are unusual—and those with mackerel virtually nonexistent. How did Vallayer-Coster, who lived in Paris, manage to study fresh mackerel, a saltwater fish that spoiled quickly?
Fresh mackerel were, in fact, available in Paris when Vallayer-Coster painted this canvas. They were fished off the coast of Normandy in May and transported by boat or horse to Paris. Most mackerel, like herring, would have been salted and preserved, but the best mackerel were fresh.
The rich, delectable mackerel was much anticipated and celebrated in May: according to the contemporary Almanach des Gourmands people would “gather around them, put them up for auction, and feature them in invitations.”
Vallayer-Coster’s still life shows off preparations for this seasonal, springtime mackerel feast. Two simple recipes were popular at the time: the mackerel was split open and stuffed with butter and herbs and grilled, or dressed with olive oil and lemon.
The elegant silver cruet set in the latest neoclassical fashion holds thick green olive oil and red vinegar. Vallayer-Coster’s father was a goldsmith—if she didn’t own this cruet set herself, she would have had no trouble borrowing one. Note the reflection of a window at its base!
The silver receptacle was also a luxury item that began to appear in the mid-18th century. It was used to cool the wine glasses before use, as its name “rafraîchissoir” or “verrière” suggests.
Its lobed edges hold the stems of the glasses, so that the feet protrude. It would have been placed on a side table, since proper etiquette dictated that glasses were served to each guest—not set on the dining table.
Because of the curvature of the receptacle, the reflection of the cut lemon appears to be duplicated. Its yellow-lake pigment has faded over the years; originally it would have been more vivid.
The brioche—made with butter and egg—was more fitting for a celebration than a simple loaf of bread. Its shiny crust and warm hues provide a counterpoint in the composition.
It also pays homage to Vallayer-Coster’s great predecessor, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, whose famous still life featuring a brioche is in the Louvre.
The festive sprig with orange blossoms signals springtime.
The plump fish are piled on a white damask cloth, its pressed folds testifying to a well-run household.
At the corner of the linen at the bottom right of the picture, Vallayer-Coster has placed her initials, “VC,” and the number 6 below. Such monograms would have been embroidered on her very own linens to keep inventory of multiple sets as they were laundered. There is another signature below, on the table—more difficult to see: "Mme v. Coster 178.”
This still life effectively whets our appetite for a simple but sumptuous feast, such as would have been enjoyed in a well-to-do household like Vallayer-Coster's own, or that of her patrons. It was painted just before the French revolution, which she survived, despite her bourgeoise and aristocratic clientele.
On the strength of her own talents, Vallayer-Coster was by age 26 one of the very few women to be accepted as a member of the powerful French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. This allowed her to show her work at the annual Salons and gain critical acclaim and patronage.
Self-Portrait (c. 1781) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le BrunKimbell Art Museum
Vallayer-Coster's magical still life joins this Self-Portrait, a highlight of the Kimbell collection by the great portraitist Élizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Vallayer-Coster’s slightly younger contemporary and also a member of the French Royal Academy.
Welcoming Fresh Mackerel in May
The Curator’s Perspective, Nancy Edwards, curator of European art
Anne Vallayer-Coster, Still Life with Mackerel, 1787, oil on canvas. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Gift of Sid R. Bass in honor of Kay and Ben Fortson
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait, ca. 1781, oil on canvas. Kimbell Art Museum