With a Renoir on the wall and Picasso himself drinking with her dad, she had to be inspired

Her father was Gary Cooper. Her great-uncle, movie art director Cedric Gibbons, designed the Oscar and then won 11 of them for his sets. Her husband is concert pianist Byron Janis. Now, at 41, Maria Cooper Janis has begun to emerge from the awesome artistic shadow of her family as a painter in her own right. Her seascapes and still lifes commanded up to $1,800 from such purchasers as Patricia Kennedy Lawford last week at Manhattan's Bodley Gallery, and next fall she has been invited to show in Paris.

"The question I'm most often asked," she admits, "is, 'Why didn't you become an actress?' Well, I never thought I had the ability. It's not my way of expressing myself." As Coop's only child by his only wife, socialite Veronica "Rocky" Balfe, Maria grew up in L.A.'s elegant Holmby Hills. "I'm quiet like he was," she explains, "but my mother filled me with enthusiasm for doing things. I have a lot of energy, but I can also be happy sitting alone looking at a rock for hours."

Not that she didn't also grow up with manmade inspirations. Paintings by Bonnard et al graced the walls of the Cooper home, and family friends included Pablo Picasso, as well as Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. (Cooper once told Picasso with marvelous directness: "You're a helluva guy, but I really don't get those pictures.") Maria recalls at age 17 attempting to copy Renoir's Femme au Chapeau, which hung in the living room. "When I finished, my father said, 'It's very nice, but why does she have a green mustache?' " Undaunted, Maria has painted seriously since studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles from 1956 to 1960. Before she met Janis, Maria dabbled so feverishly to his recording of a Prokofiev concerto that she frayed a tendon in her wrist. "When we met," she laughs, "I was still wearing a cast. I didn't tell him until much later." They married in 1966.

The couple share a Park Avenue apartment with two pianos and Electra, a Burmese cat. Byron's 24-year-old son, Stefan, from his first marriage often stops by, but they have no children of their own ("With our mobile way of life, it's not practical," she says). While the maestro practices in one room, Maria paints in another—with just one window. "I like to shut out everything," she says. Music is her light and muse. "The outstanding quality of Maria's work is its musicality," agrees her husband. "The lines move and flow."

His concert schedule keeps them on tour six months of the year. Maria travels with sketchbook in hand. At home she bikes, practices yoga and concocts exotic soups. It is through art, however, that she has found herself. "Everyone must be their own person," she observes. "You cannot depend on—or be hindered by—the baggage you were born with. You have to find what you're capable of doing and go after it."