Springtime, Pierre-Auguste Cot (French, Bédarieux 1837–1883 Paris), Oil on canvas


Pierre-Auguste Cot (French, Bédarieux 1837–1883 Paris)
Oil on canvas
84 x 50 in. (213.4 x 127 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Steven and Alexandra Cohen, 2012
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 827
This flirtatious duo in classicizing dress, painted with notable technical finesse, reflects Cot’s allegiance to the academic style of his teachers, including Bouguereau and Cabanel. Exhibited at the Salon of 1873, the picture was Cot’s greatest success, widely admired and copied in engravings, fans, porcelains, and tapestries. Its first owner, hardware tycoon John Wolfe, awarded the work a prime spot in his Manhattan mansion, where visitors delighted in "this reveling pair of children, drunken with first love ... this Arcadian idyll, peppered with French spice." Wolfe’s cousin, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, later commissioned a similar scene from Cot, The Storm, now also in the Metropolitan’s collection (87.15.134).
The Artist: 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 Additional Images, fig. 1), 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 [1880]) 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 (see Additional Images, 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 (87.15.134), 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]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right): P + A + COT 1873
John Wolfe, New York (1873–82; bought from the artist during the Salon of 1873; his sale, Chickering Hall, New York, April 5–6, 1882, no. 50, for $9,700 to Lyall); David C. Lyall, Brooklyn (1882–d. 1892; his estate sale, American Art Association, New York, February 19, 1903, no. 105, for $3,100 to Goodwin for Goodnow and Bigelow); his daughters, Elizabeth Lyall Goodnow and Isabella Lyall Bigelow, Brooklyn, later Norfolk, Conn. (1903–at least 1938; on loan to Brooklyn Museum, 1903–38, released to Rost); [Anton Rost, New York, from 1938]; unidentified hotel or Sordoni family, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (until 1980; sold to Michelman); [Joan Michelman, New York, 1980; sold to Ross]; Mr. and Mrs. Frederick C. Ross, Essex Fells, N.J. (1980–99; on loan to MMA, 1996–99; sale, Sotheby's, New York, May 5, 1999, no. 99, bought in); Steven and Alexandra Cohen, Greenwich, Conn. (by 2004–12; on loan to MMA, 2006–12)
Paris. Salon. 1873, no. 365 (as "Le printemps," with the accompanying lines: "O primavera! gioventù dell'anno! / O gioventù! primavera della vita!!!" [O Spring! Youth of the year! / O youth! Springtime of life!!!]).

Brooklyn Art Association. "Fancie Bazaar, In Ayde of Ye Sheltering Arms Nurserie," January 22–28, 1883, no. 138 lent by D.C. Lyall.

Brooklyn. Home of David C. Lyall, 240 President Street. December 11, 1890, no catalogue [see Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1890].

Brooklyn Museum. "Summer Exhibition," June 7–October 1, 1933, no catalogue.

L'Univers illustré (September 6, 1873), ill. p. 569 (engraving).

Castagnary. "Salon de 1873." Le Siècle (May 10, 1873) [reprinted in Castagnary, "Salons (1872–1879)," vol. 2, Paris, 1892, p. 92], states that Cot redeems with a pretty face the unsavory success earned by his swing, referring respectively to the portrait of Mlle P... shown at the 1873 Salon, and the present painting.

Ernest d'Hervilly. "Le Salon de 1873." La Renaissance littéraire et artistique 2 (May 31, 1873), p. 129 [reprint ed., Geneva, 1973], calls it "Amants sur un balançoire".

Ph[ilippe]. de Chennevières. "Le Salon de 1880." Gazette des beaux-arts 21 (June 1880), p. 510 [reprinted as "Le Salon de peinture en 1880," 1880], describes it as a "vrai pendant" to Cot's "The Storm" (MMA 87.15.34).

Roger-Ballu. La Peinture au Salon de 1880. Paris, 1880, p. 67, calls it "Balançoire;" describes the figures.

Maurice du Seigneur. L'Art et les artistes au Salon de 1880. Paris, 1880, p. 31, describes the figures as the same couple who appear in Cot's "The Storm" (MMA 87.15.134), and identifies them as Daphnis and Chloë [see Refs. for "The Storm"]; notes that the composition has been extensively reproduced in a range of media.

Edward Strahan [Earl Shinn], ed. The Art Treasures of America. Philadelphia, [1880], vol. 1, pp. 54, 64, ill. between pp. 54 and 55, calls it both "Springtime" and "Spring;" describes it hanging beside Bouguereau's "Nymphs and Satyr" (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.).

Émile Michel. "Le Salon de 1880." Revue des deux mondes, 3ème pér., 39 (May 1, 1880), pp. 682–83, notes the painting's persistent popularity, including reproductions in engraving, enamel, and porcelain.

René Delorme. "La Peinture de genre." L'Exposition des beaux-arts (Salon de 1880). Paris, 1880, unpaginated, describes the figures as the same couple who appear in Cot's "The Storm" (MMA 87.15.34) and identifies them as Paul and Virginie [see Refs. for "The Storm"].

"High Prices for Paintings: Lively Competition to Secure Gems from John Wolfe's Collection." New York Times (April 6, 1882), p. 2, notes that it sold for $9,700 [the highest price of the evening] to D.C. Lyall of Brooklyn.

"Current Events." Brooklyn Daily Eagle (April 6, 1882), p. 2, writes that it sold for $9,700, the highest price of the evening at the Wolfe sale.

"Art Exhibition and Bazar for the Sheltering Arms Nursery." Brooklyn Daily Eagle (January 19, 1883), p. 2.

"Splendid: The Loan Exhibition at the Art Association Rooms." Brooklyn Daily Eagle (January 22, 1883), p. 4, calls it "one of the most beautiful pictures in the city"; notes that it was among a number of pictures loaned by Lyall.

C. H. Stranahan. A History of French Painting from its Earliest to its Latest Practice. New York, 1888, p. 411.

"For Friendless Women and Children: Exhibition of Mr. Lyall's Gallery in Aid of the Charity." Brooklyn Daily Eagle (December 12, 1890), p. 1, discusses an exhibit of Lyall's collection, which included this work.

Weston Coyney. "The Lyall Collection." The Collector 3 (October 15, 1892), p. 310.

Weston Coyney in "The Late David C. Lyall's Collection." The Eagle and Brooklyn: History of the City of Brooklyn. Ed. Henry W. B. Howard. Brooklyn, 1893, vol. 2, p. 790.

Montague Marks. "My Note Book." The Art Amateur 30 (May 1894), p. 154, incorrectly calls it a replica and locates the original in the A. T. Stewart collection.

"The Lyall Collection." New York Times (February 4, 1903), p. 9, compares it to the work of Bouguereau and Fragonard; calls it Cot's masterpiece and notes its extraordinary popularity.

"Big Prices at Lyall Sale." New York Times (February 11, 1903), p. 2, writes that it was bought by F. J. Goodwin for $3,100.

"Art Notes." New York Times (February 15, 1903), p. 26, remarks that it did not fetch a high price in the Lyall sale.

"The Brooklyn Museum: Gifts and Loans of Pictures to the Art Museum of Brooklyn Borough by Noted Citizens." New York Times (June 17, 1903), p. 9, writes that the painting was bought in by the family at the Lyall sale and that Lyall's daughters, Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. Bigelow, have lent the picture to the Brooklyn Museum.

William H. Goodyear. Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences: Catalogue of Paintings. [Brooklyn, N.Y.], 1906, p. 12, no. 51, lent by Mrs. E. L. Goodnow and Mrs. F. L. Bigelow.

William H. Goodyear and A. D. Savage. Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences: Catalogue of Paintings. [Brooklyn, N.Y.], 1910, p. 19, no. 81, list the work among the museum loans displayed in the galleries.

"Schrier Painting is Sold for $5,500." New York Times (January 18, 1919), p. 11, writes that the original studies for this painting and "The Storm" (MMA 87.15.134) were sold at the John W. Sterling sale for $775 each, to Herbert Day.

Howard Devree. "The Brooklyn Museum's Summer Shows of Paintings and of Arms and Armor." New York Times (July 23, 1933), p. X5.

James Henry Rubin. "Pierre-Auguste Cot's 'The Storm'." Metropolitan Museum Journal 14 (1979), pp. 191, 193–94, 196–97, 199–200, fig. 3, discusses its early provenance, suggesting that its presence in the collection of John Wolfe motivated his cousin Catharine Lorillard Wolfe to commission "The Storm" (MMA 87.15.134) and calling the two works "spiritual pendants" .

Madeleine Fidell Beaufort et al. in The Diaries, 1871–1882, of Samuel P. Avery, Art Dealer. Ed. Madeleine Fidell Beaufort et al. New York, 1979, p. xlviii, fig. 65, cite it as an exemplar of academic painting.

James Henry Rubin. "Who was Pierre-Auguste Cot?" Nineteenth Century 6 (Spring 1980), pp. 36–38, fig. 2, discusses its early history and the fate of a copy sold in 1974.

Marguerite Smolen. "High Romance." New Jersey Monthly 13 (October 1988), pp. 108, 112, ill. (color), states that Ross purchased the painting from an art dealer who discovered it hanging in a hotel in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Carol Vogel. "'Springtime' Rediscovered." New York Times (February 9, 1996), p. C26.

Kathryn Manzo. "Collectors and Their Collections: The Collection of Fred and Sherry Ross." Classical Realism Journal 3, no. 2 (1997), p. 35, ill. on cover and p. 2 (color).

Fred Ross. "The Story of 'Springtime'." Artnet. January 6, 2000, ill. (color) [www.artnet.com/magazine/features/ross/ross1-6-00.asp], discusses the details of his purchase of the painting from Michelman.

James F. Peck. In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau & His American Students. Exh. cat., Philbrook Museum of Art. Tulsa, 2006, pp. 124, 126, mentions three known reductions of the MMA painting, including one in The Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, Florida; notes the influence of Bouguereau on the picture.

Carol Vogel. "Reunion of Two Paintings." New York Times (July 6, 2012), p. C20.

Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 444, under no. 384.