A young maiden stares deeply into the eyes of her beloved, wrapping her arms languidly around his neck. In a lush green forest, these lovers sit side by side on a rope swing that hangs suspended from the unseen branches above. Butterflies flutter overhead. A small pool of water glitters below. The girl, beautiful and coquettish, wears a diaphanous and luminously white gown, reminiscent of an ancient Grecian , which winkingly reveals her idealized figure. Meanwhile, the young man sports a historically inspired, rustic tunic with a red sash at his waist. He gazes down tenderly toward the woman’s face, and raises his leg as thought about to push the swing forward. Their bodies lean provocatively toward each other with palpable tension.
Pierre-Auguste Cot’s (1873) is an unapologetically romantic painting, and one that is immediately recognizable—even if the painting’s name and story may not be readily familiar. Cot, a student of French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted in 1873 and exhibited it at the Salon in Paris that year. There the painting was displayed with the accompanying lines, “O primavera! gioventù dell’anno! / O gioventù! primavera della vita!!!” (Oh spring! youth of the year! / Oh youth! spring of life!!!).
is both a celebration of the beauty of youth and an allegory of rebirth and splendor of the season. The image is unreal in its beauty; one can see that while the young woman’s dress is flowing from the movement of the swing, the couple themselves are still.
In the 150 years since its creation the rapturously sensual image has been popularized the world over, through prints, postcards, cups and all other manner of reproduction. An iconic painting of young romantic love, has a fascinating backstory, too. As the season of rebirth begins, we’ve taken a closer look at the image and located three fascinating facts that just might change the way you see it.
It’s Part of a Long Line of Flirtatious Swing Scenes
While harkening back to the Arcadian idylls made famous by Nicolas Poussin, Springtime also references the flirtatious French genre of swing scenes, embodied most famously by Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo masterpiece The Swing (1767). Fragonard, in fact, painted not one but three unique depictions of women on swings. These scenes of frivolity allowed for a spirit of playful transgression, hinting at courtship and intimacy through seemingly innocent revelry. Fragonard’s frothy image depicted an aristocratic woman ensconced in a voluminously ruffled pink dress as she is pushed on a swing by a man—perhaps her unassuming husband—while her inamorato peeks scandalously upwards from below.
“With the exhilaration of vertigo play, swinging permitted occasions of sexual disorder where uninhibited positions revealed the body and spectators glimpsed views that were usually hidden from sight,” observed art historian Jennifer Milam in her essay “Playful Constructions and Fragonard’s Swinging Scenes.” Other examples of this popular genre include Nicolas Lancret’s The Swing (1730) and Francisco Goya’s interpretation from 1779. In Cot’s case, he adds one more layer of reassuring distance between his viewers and the potentially transgressive scene by placing his figures in an ancient past. “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,” wrote a later critic.
The Painting Has a Counterpart in
With the Salon of 1873, Springtime became an immediate public sensation. John Wolfe, the painting’s first owner, took immense pleasure in hanging the work prominently in his Manhattan home, and his cousin Catharine Lorillard Wolfe was so besotted by the scene, she commissioned her own composition from Cot. This painting, The Storm, has come to be known as Springtime’s “spiritual pendant” and it depicts a young couple—perhaps even the enamored youths from Springtime—dashing through the woods, he in a state of half-dress and she in a similar gown as depicted in Springtime. The couple, arm-in-arm, hold a length of fabric (perhaps her dress or overskirts) over their heads as they run for cover from a storm. Historians have sometimes interpreted the figures in the storm as Chloe and Daphnis from the story by the ancient Greek writer Longus, which tells the story of a boy and a girl who were each abandoned by their own parents and birth and grew up in innocence together and fell in love as adolescents. We might then apply this reading to Springtime, and the season to a phase of life. Still others have interpreted the maiden as a personification of spring itself, the flowers below her and butterflies above her, extensions of her beauty. Years later, Lorillard Wolfe was the benefactor who gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
After Vanishing for Decades, Was Rediscovered in a Pennsylvania Hotel
Despite its fame during its own age, the romantic splendors of Springtime eventually went out of vogue, and Cot’s masterpiece fell into obscurity for decades—almost irrevocably. Springtime remained in Wolfe’s collection for nine years before passing onto to Brooklyn collector David Lyall in 1882. Here it followed in 1903 to the collectors Mrs. Goodenow and Mrs. Bigelow, who purchased the painting for $3,100 and subsequently loaned the work to the Brooklyn Museum, where it hung until 1938. It is believed that it was then returned to the Goodenow family before disappearing for some 41 years. In the intervening year, the prestigious art historian James Henry Rubin sought fruitlessly to locate the painting. Then in 1980, a dealer by the name of Joan Michelman uncovered the mysteriously misplaced painting at a ragtag hotel in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Fred Ross, who purchased the painting from Michelman, recalled in an essay the strange scene when the dealer invited him to see the painting: “The piece was lying on its side, filthy, with black and red graffiti on the bottom. This bizarre scene was never repeated in 25 years of collecting. When I saw the image, dirty, sideways, and with streaked varnish, something clicked inside—intuition, a subconscious memory, or the energizing impact of being before a great masterpiece. Keeping my cool, I said I would consider it.” Ross purchased the painting, which he added to his esteemed collection of 19th-century works. In the 1990s Ross loaned the painting to the Met so that it might finally be showed alongside The Storm, much to the delight of art-loving romantics around the world. But it was not until the painting was bought by mega-collectors Steven and Alexandra Cohen that it at last entered the museum’s permanent collection in 2012.