Sarah Sze, Sexton (from Triple Point of Water), 2004-2005, Detroit Institute of Fine Arts
Contemporary American artist Sarah Sze works with large-scale, multi-media installations. One such work, titled Sexton, is installed in a rather dark corner of contemporary wing in the Detroit Institute of Arts. There, one can't help but be drawn to the gurgle of the trickling water elements, the iridescent glow of the light bulbs, and the vivid color of the "botanical elements" (manmade renditions of bright red coral, pale blue rocks, bright green grass), which seem to burst out of glass fish tanks. The work is playful, and strangely seductive: though blatantly artificial, it nonetheless appears to be alive.
As a student of eighteenth-century French still life painting, however, I am attracted to Sze's work for another reason: it reminds me of one of Anne Vallayer Coster's most famous paintings, Still Life with Seashells and Coral, dated in 1769.
Anne Vallayer Coster, Still Life with Seashells and Coral, 1769, Louvre, Paris
Vallayer Coster, the daughter of a goldsmith, was twenty-five years old when she was admitted to the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1770—one of only four female artists accepted in the late eighteenth century. At the Salon of 1771, her first as an académicienne, Vallayer Coster exhibited eleven works, including the Louvre’s Still Life with Seashells and Coral (1).
This painting contains representations of twenty-four distinct plant and animal species from the Atlantic, the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and the Pacific, carefully arranged on a rough stone ledge and illuminated against an inky black background. The composition is dominated by triumphant plumes of stony white Venus sea fan, as well as branches of red and purple coral. To the right, Vallayer Coster positioned a large mollusk shell with a blood-orange belly, buttressed by a pleated, buttercup-yellow sponge. In the foreground, the artist arranged smaller specimens– including, from left to right, a mohawked, peach snail shell, a delicate sprig of lavender-colored coral, a fluted white clam, the flesh pink conch shell, and a marbled, reptilian green turban shell (2),
The tight choreography of Vallayer Coster's objects serves to highlight contrasts in color (delicate and iridescent) as well as texture (spiky, mossy, veiny, pimpled, and slick). Yet her shells also evince a kind of orgiastic intimacy—like the pyramidal swell of languid sea nymphs, born aloft by frothy waves, in Francois Boucher’s Birth of Venus.
Francois Boucher (1703–1770), The Triumph of Venus, 1740, oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
Indeed, it was the sensual qualities of Vallayer Coster’s painting (and its now-lost pendant) that earned significant critical praise when they were first exhibited at the Salon of 1771. Denis Diderot declared her natural history paintings to be masterpieces of the genre, specifically praising the arrangement, as well as the color and form, of the “polished shell bodies.” He concluded that Vallayer Coster’s work was “excellent, vigorous, harmonious; it’s not Chardin, however, but if it’s less good than this master, it’s far above what is to be expected of a woman." (3) A critic from the Mercure de France concurred, writing, “The disadvantages of her sex notwithstanding, she has taken the difficult art of rendering nature to a degree of perfection that enchants and surprises us." (4)
Notwithstanding those sexist 'digs', we might use similar language to describe Sarah Sze's Sexton. In both works, bright, exotic elements of "sea life" possess a triumphant glow--and the power to both enchant and surprise us.
(1) Kahng et al., Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
(2) These specimens were identified in Madeleine Pinault-Sorensen and Marie-Catherine Sahut, “Panaches de mer, Lithophytes et Coquilles (1769), un tableau d’histoire naturelle par Anne Vallayer-Coster,” Revue du Louvre: La Revue des Musées de France XLVII (February 1998): 49-50.
(3) Denis Diderot, Salon of 1771, 512 no. 154.
(4) Mercure de France, September 1770, 74-75.