Atelier · March 2, 2007

Friday in the atelier: “Pisan Girl with Basket of Oranges and Lemons” by Pierre-Auguste Cot

What do you do with your old photographs of your great grandfather John? What about great great aunt Bertha’s portrait? Do you hang them on your wall, or do you stuff them into the family photo album? Maybe you find a museum willing to display these old photos for their historical value.

My point is that you will probably not display your old family photos for their artistic value – even if it is a beautiful portrait of your cruel-looking great uncle Ruthbert, the bank manager who gleefully foreclosed on several families during Christmas of 1936. The subject of the portrait reduces the value of the portrait dramatically – even if the portrait were created by someone famous.

This was a traditional problem for painters. Painters who became famous for their art were often offered portrait commissions, usually by rich aristocrats or political figures. The rich and powerful couldn’t just have a photographic portrait made because the technology was slow, cumbersome, and imperfect throughout the 1800’s – so a painted portrait was their key to immortality. And what better way to achieve that immortality than to have a portrait created by someone famous? Artists have to eat too, and the offer of half a year’s wages (or a whole year’s wages in some cases!) for a life-sized portrait of evil uncle Ruthbert is very tempting.

Famous artists are famous for paintings that have themes that endure, and that are widely seen and appreciated. A family portrait that hangs in a rich family’s mansion hallway for the next hundred and fifty years does not have much of an audience.

This is the problem with Pierre Auguste Cot.

It’s hard to get two or three biographies of Cot to agree exactly with each other. Very little is known of Cot’s personal life. Most of Cot’s works seem to be in private collections and are not available for viewing online – even those few that are not portraits.

Cot was born in Bedarieux France in 1837, and died in Paris in 1883. During his 46 years he became famous fast. He first went to school at the Fine Arts academe in Toulouse, and continued his education at the Paris Fine Arts academe. His teachers were the sculptor Francisgue-Joseph Duret and historical painter Leon Cogniet. Cot was tutored by Alexander Cabanel and William Bouguereau. At the age of 26 Cot had his first showing at the Paris Salon, where his magical, graceful paintings of historical scenes and allegorical subjects made him famous.

His fame earned him Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, and a place on the jury of the Salon de Paris and Prix de Rome. His fame also earned him endless portrait commissions, and the success of those commissions resulted in word-of-mouth advertising and more commissions. This is unfortunate for those of us who would have loved to see more enduring themes.

Cot married Francisgue-Joseph Duret’s daughter, and died at a relatively young age. I have no idea why he died so early, I don’t know if he had children, and I don’t know if he instructed other painters. I can only imagine that he spent his life rushing from commission to commission, rarely finding time to paint more accessible subjects.

There are two paintings by Cot that I can almost guarantee that you’ve already seen. “Springtime” and “The Storm”. You can view them again by following these links. There are very few other Cot paintings available in the public sphere, but I’m going to show you two others.

First up is a cropped detail of Cot’s “Pisan Girl with Basket of Oranges and Lemons”. Of the two Cot paintings I’m displaying, this is my favorite because of the woman’s saucy look and way she’s holding her hip and shoulders. There is a friendly, teasing challenge to her stance that is almost a dare to the viewer to do something about it.

Next is the painting “Ophelia”, also titled “Pause for Thought”. I love the lighting in this painting; it feels as if she’s standing in a dark castle hallway with an open window to her right (the viewer’s left) to let in the afternoon sun. What ever it is that she’s reading it is fascinating, and she’s just about to quote a passage of the text to the viewer and ask for an opinion. Afterwards she’ll walk down the hall to a quiet nook to finish the chapter, maybe even the book.

I imagine that the book is Cot’s autobiography, that it is fascinating, and that it contains more of his artistic works.

I wish I had more of his art, I wish we all did.