Pierre-Auguste Cot (1837–1883) came from Bédarieux in Languedoc, a southern province of France. He was a student of the history and portrait painter Léon Cogniet and two of the titans of Academic painting, Alexandre Cabanel and William Bouguereau. His early paintings exhibited at the Salon included portraits as well as mythological paintings and nude studies. Springtime
appeared at the Paris Salon of 1873 and was a great success there and thereafter, fostering many repetitions in almost every conceivable format: paintings, etchings, engravings, lithographs, colored photographs, tapestries, fans, and porcelain. Cot was made a chevalier
of the Legion of Honor the next year but chased the legacy of his Springtime
fame unsuccessfully in portraits of fashionable women ever after and died in his forties of liver disease.The Painting:
This image of a very young couple swaying together on a swing that seems to hang, fancifully, from the heavens in the middle of a lush enchanted forest replete with white birch trees, irises, small daisies, and butterflies has captivated many visitors to The Met, just as it did visitors to the Salon of 1873. There, the painting appeared with the accompanying lines in Italian: "O primavera! gioventù dell’anno! / O gioventù! primavera della vita!!!" (Oh spring! youth of the year! / Oh youth! spring of life!!!). The flowers and butterflies signifying spring frame a boy’s doting gaze and a girl’s coy smile and sidelong glance, in short, a budding flirtation. The boy’s playfully-positioned legs—with his left foot hooked back around his right calf—and the girl’s transparent classical drapery bring the subject of sex as close to young love as it gets in late nineteenth-century French painting. Her drapery appears to be caught by the light breeze caused by their movement, even as the figures and their swing sit still enough in the center of the canvas for the painter to capture them with perfect clarity. Her more demure pose, with the right foot latched around the left ankle, and her arms trustingly clasped around the neck of her companion, along with the sunlight skimming her body, all highlight her youth.
In both subject and style, the painting owes its origins to Cot’s teachers Bouguereau and Cabanel, who embraced genre scenes and mythological subjects with tidbits of titillation. It also looks back to the eighteenth-century French master Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing
(see fig. 1 above), where the girl’s splayed legs and the boy’s outstretched arm make plain that theirs is an erotic encounter.
Salon critics were less taken with Cot’s picture than the public. Jules Castagnary (1873), for example, referred to its "unsavory success," while Ernest d’Hervilly (1873) poked fun at the transparent drapery that left nothing to the imagination. Once on view in the private collection of hardware magnate John Wolfe in New York, a writer tracking the Art Treasures of America
(Strahan ) called the couple in "the most dangerous and inflammable of the teens." He also saw the figures as caught between ancient Greece and modernity as in, for example, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s early painting The Cockfight
(fig. 2), some twenty-seven years earlier. Later commentators noted of the Victorian taste for eroticism in relation to the picture: "One marvels at the degrees of eroticism tolerated (or excused) in the name of classicism by a clientele who generally wanted nothing faintly overt of this sort" (Fidell Beaufort et al. 1979).The Theme and Its "Spiritual Pendant":
Seven years after painting Springtime
, Cot produced what has been called its "spiritual pendant" (Rubin 1980), The Met’s The Storm
), a canvas that is similarly over life-size. The Met’s great patron Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, the cousin of John Wolfe, then owner of Springtime
, commissioned The Storm
after having seen Springtime
in her cousin’s Manhattan mansion, where he had given it pride of place. Instead of swinging on a sunny spring day, the pair in The Storm
rush under a makeshift umbrella from a thunderstorm with an ominously dark sky and a bolt of lightning at top right. Again, the girl wears transparent drapery and the boy classical garb, a kind of loincloth and shepherd’s horn.
Cot exhibited The Storm
at the Salon of 1880, where critics found literary sources for the subject in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s (1737–1814) popular French Romantic novel Paul et Virginie
(first published in 1788) and the ancient Greek writer Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe
(see references under The Storm
, especially Delorme 1880 and Seigneur 1880). Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s novel tells the story of childhood friends who become lovers. Longus’s fourth-century pastoral tale of another adolescent couple, a shepherd and shepherdess who grew up together, is more overtly erotic. While critics of Cot’s day were unable to determine precisely which literary source inspired the artist, Rubin (1980) stresses that the Romantic novel has more specific relevance to Cot’s pendant images. Paul et Virginie
’s inclusion of a scene of teens fleeing a rainstorm, making Virginie’s overskirt into an impromptu shelter from the storm, as well as the novel’s continued popularity in this period (French novelist Gustave Flaubert [1821–1880] named characters after the pair in his 1877 novel Un Coeur simple
) give credence to the critics’ identification of this literary source. Delorme (1880) retroactively connected the figures of Springtime
to the same Romantic novel.
Rubin (1980) also discusses both pictures in the context of Cot’s conscious catering to popular taste, his "ingratiation . . . to bourgeois society" and notes of The Storm
that "it exemplifies not the ideals but rather the taste of the period, to which its creator catered so generously." In this manner, Rubin characterizes Cot as a fashionable artist more than a traditional Academician focused on larger ideals to be upheld. This image of carefree youth continues to appeal to broad audiences even today.
Jane R. Becker 2016