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. Cot’s Springtime
(The Met, 2012.575
) 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 in the also-widely-reproduced The Storm
and then unsuccessfully in portraits of fashionable women ever after, and died in his forties of liver disease.The Painting:
Seven years after painting Springtime
, Cot produced what has been called this "spiritual pendant" (Rubin 1980), 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.
Caught in the midst of a sudden autumn storm, a young couple rushes to find shelter, temporarily shielding themselves from the imminent onrush with a deep mustard-toned fabric with a dramatic reflective sheen quite possibly deriving from the light of the moon. The leaves on the plants by their feet are browning, which confirms the season for their flight. The makeshift fabric umbrella picks up the reddish tones of the girl’s hair. While Cot might have initially sought out the same models seven years after Springtime
, he seems to have used different models in the end. However, as in the earlier scene, both figures are barefoot and both have curly locks. Dressed only in transparent drapery in each painting, the girl’s nubile body becomes the star of the show. The boy is in classical garb in both pictures, too; here, a kind of loincloth accessorized with a shepherd’s horn. 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. In subject and style, both paintings owe their origins to Cot’s teachers Bouguereau and Cabanel, who embraced genre scenes and mythological subjects with tidbits of titillation.
Critics at the Salon of 1880, where Cot first exhibited The Storm
, were less taken with the picture than the public. Philippe de Chennevières (1880) found it banal, something apart from true art. Similarly, René Delorme (1880) called it a triumph of conventionality and noted that the figures resembled porcelain enamel (most likely referring to their lack of expression). More humorous reactions to it included that of Vast-Ricouard and Gros-Kost (1880), who joked that if the girl were to have encountered a policeman, he would have reported her for running through the fields so academically dressed ("aussi académiquement habillée") in her transparent raincoat. Maurice de Seigneur (1880) responded to the inevitable question of where the couple was headed by stating that they were running after bourgeois success ("après le succès bourgeois"), likely a comment about Cot’s own attempt to rekindle his success with bourgeois audiences in the wake of Springtime
Commentators at the Salon of 1880 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 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 in Springtime
to the same 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. These playful images of youth continue to appeal to broad audiences even today.
[Jane R. Becker 2016]