Pierre Auguste Cot (1837-1883) was a painter of the academic classicism school in France.
Pierre Auguste Cot Summary:
- He studied at the l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse, France before moving to Paris.
- His teachers were Leon Cogniet, Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
- Following his debut at the Salon in 1863, he found immediate success.
- He married the daughter of his patron, sculptor Francisque Duret.
- He received numerous awards and medals, including the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1874.
- His work consists of mythological and allegorical images but is most renowned for his portraits.
Early Life & Education
Pierre Auguste Cot had the customary form of the Academic painter. It began at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse, not far from his birthplace in the Hérault region (in Occitania, the south of France). As expected, he moved to Paris to further his education.
There he studied and apprenticed under such authoritative figures of the artistic establishment as Léon Cogniet, classicist and art teacher, Alexandre Cabanel, Napoleon III’s favorite (and Academic) painter, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the most emblematic and prolific Academicist of the second half of the 19th century. With Bouguereau, he also established a lasting friendship.
Pierre Auguste Cot learned the lesson of his celebrated teachers well, for in 1863, at the young age of 26, he made his debut at the official Salon.
Pierre Auguste Cot & The Paris Salon
The critical recognition from the artistic authorities of the age launched Cot to popularity. His exhibitions were accompanied by prizes; the decade of the 1870s was, for Cot, a parable of continuous ascent. Not only was his art a reliable feature of the Salon, but he was even named to serve on the Salon’s jury, the authority which deliberated on the admission of artworks. Similarly, he became part of the jury of the Prix de Rome, the prestigious scholarship for French artists. Finally, in 1874, he was decorated with the Legion of Honour, no less, barely a decade from his appearance in the public eye.
Cot’s comfortable situation in the French artistic elite was nurtured, as well as with prizes, with the friendship of other established artists. His working relationship with sculptor Francisque Duret led to Cot marrying his daughter.
The strong friendship with Bouguereau — who regarded Cot as possibly his best pupil — inspired the elderly master classicist to paint Gabrielle Cot, his daughter. Completed in 1890 and simply titled with her name, the painting is one of the few in Bouguereau’s exorbitant ouevre (estimated at almost one thousand pieces) to have been created under no commission and simply out of the artist’s desire.
Cot achieved great public acclaim thanks to two paintings that have come to be regarded, retrospectively, as a pair: Springtime (or Spring) of 1873 and The Storm of 1880. Both depict two young lovers in the act of embrace, but in two thematically opposite settings.
In the earlier painting, the two are sitting on a swing inside a forest which, with the abundance and height of its greenery, appears to us tropical. Clad in classical vestments, the lovers are looking at each other with a kind of soft rapture suggestive of first love. They also appear as if they are in their early teens.
The Storm shows them instead in the midst of a run, a gold-colored sheet unfurled above their heads. They are clearly fleeing from the incoming rainfall; their garb is classical again (particularly sheer in the girl’s case, revealing a punctual classical physique); they appear a couple of years older than in the previous painting.
These are classicist compositions, as evinced by the studied naturalism of their objects and their strongly geometrical arrangements. They also seem to tell us of a symbolical dimension whereby something elemental about the erotic experience is represented: the thoughtless simplicity of young love in the first case perhaps; the self-confident playfulness, even against the inclemency of the natural world, of a couple who is inexperienced no longer in the second case.
Both of the paintings are today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, having come from the Wolfe family of art collectors, who purchased both immediately as they appeared at the Salon to great acclaim.
Springtime and The Storm went on to become widely popular and recognized, with countless reproductions appearing in all kinds of media. Pierre Auguste Cot has also painted one of the most recognized depictions of Ophelia, the young lady from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Rather than imagine her in proximity to the fateful brook, Cot depicts her standing upright, decorously dressed in a white and blue dress, holding a red book (a likely token of her erotic urge), and giving us a strange, meaning look, one which mingles amusement and suggestion. The assertively sexual air thus belies the modesty suggested by her clothing and her hair circlet in the guise of a simple strip. An unforgettable take on a painterly topos.
Pierre Auguste Cot the Teacher
Among his many honors, Pierre Auguste Cot was also hired to teach at the Académie Julian, the famed art school, at which Bouguereau had also recurrently taught since the 1860s. Among his prominent pupils, there were the Americans Ellen Day Hale, a future Impressionist, and Anna Klumpke, a future genre painter.
Cot emerged as a talented Academic painter at the same time as the Impressionists emerged as the interesting but marginal countercurrent. The first Impressionist exhibition, in December 1873, predates by about two years Cot’s first Salon exhibition.
Though evidently inconsequential to the success of classicist painters in the 1870s and 1880s, the Impressionists constituted a tremendous, and eventually fatal, challenge to classical taste. Bouguereau would live to experience a mild shift in his critical reputation at the turn of the century; not so Cot.
Pierre August Cot died in 1883, at the age of 46. A premature death thus prevented him from becoming the Academicist heir of Bouguereau and the others who were perhaps going to give battle to the Post-Impressionists and the avant-garde. Following his death, a public subscription secured the creation of a commemorative monument, which was finally erected in 1892 in his hometown.