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Monday, December 2, 2013

Pierre Auguste Cot

The Storm, 1880, Pierre Auguste Cot
Although I've written quite a lot about Impressionism recently, it's difficult to grasp the quantum leap this style of painting was over that of the prevailing, bourgeois tastes of Paris in the 1870s without taking a closer look at such work. First, there were the big names in Academic painting, Ingres, Delacroix, Cabanal, Bouguereau, Gerome and a few others. But also, tagging along not far behind, was a fairly lengthy list of "little" names as well, including Thomas Couture, Paul Delaroche, Jules Lefebvre, Pierre Auguste Cot, and many, many others. Although there are subtle differences in the work of all these artists, in general, the Paris art scene in the 1870s and 80s was so inbred as a result of each generation of Ecole des Beaux Arts students so desperately following the "what works" formula of their masters as to send a viewer's eyes immediately to the corner of their work in search of a signature to ascertain the artist. And the driving force behind this Academic sameness was the ubiquitous Paris Salon, where acceptance or rejection could literally make or break an artist's career. That is what the Impressionists were up against.
Springtime, 1873, Pierre Auguste Cot. It would appear to me Cot
used the same models for this and The Storm, though the male figure
was provided a more revealing costume for the 1880 work (top).
Pierre Auguste Cot Self-portrait,1870
Typical of the second tier of Academic artists, and one of the most inbred, working at a time when the Academic style was at its height, was Pierre Auguste Cot. Although you may not recognize the name, there's a good chance you may recognize his work, such as The Storm (top), painted in 1880. It's often used as the epitome of all that was congenitally wrong with Academic art at this time. In this case, Cot even went so far as to suggest the Academic family tree, indicating ancestry in the Rococo and Romantic styles of previous generations. Though stopping just short of depicting his figures in the nude (as Cabanal and others might have done) there is an innate eroticism lingering just beneath the surface in this and Cot's other most famous work, a companion piece painted earlier (1873) ,which he called Springtime (above). This sanitized sexuality was one of the hallmarks of the Academic style.

Portrait of a Girl, 1869, Pierre Auguste Cot.
Though probably his "best" paintigs, and that which got him represented in the Salon shows, The Storm and Springtime were show pieces. They were not typical of his work. Cot was primarily a portrait painter (no artist at the time, even Cabanal or Bouguereau, could earn a living painting nothing but nubile naked nymphs). Cot's portraits are good, though not exceptional. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of equally adept portrait artists in Paris at the time. The Academic style was in its finest form when it came to portraits, at least until portrait photography stole its thunder. Yet, even in Cot's portraits, there is an undercurrent of eroticism flowing just beneath the surface. Cot's Portrait of a Girl (right) from 1869, is what we might call today "sexy."

Dionysia, 1870, Pierre Auguste Cot.

And if Cot wasn't painting sexy he was painting sweet (another Academic trademark). His Dionysia (left) from 1870, is more mature, more demure, and literally quite "flowery." Just looking at it drives my blood sugar level up 100 points. In the same clogged vein, the works of Cot and his cadre of Academic cohorts were like a syrupy caffe mocha while Impressionism might be compared to sparkling Perrier.

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