The Story of Springtime by Fred Ross

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The Story of Springtime

by Fred Ross

A beautiful young maiden hangs from her lover's neck, coquettish and devoted, she smiles warmly to meet his protective gaze. The two are seated on a swing, hanging on heavy ropes suspended from large unseen branches in a thick forest bathed with glowing primordial light. Her gown, diaphanous and white, more than slightly reveals her perfect sensual form. His arms hold tightly to the ropes, which supports them. Springtime is arguably the single greatest image of young romantic love ever conceived, poignantly touching the hearts of millions over the last 125 years.

Pierre Auguste Cot painted Springtime in 1873. Soon thereafter it was exhibited at the Paris Salon where it created a sensation. In the decades that followed it became a virtual icon of 19th Century sensibilities and taste, with fame so widespread that most westerners still recognize the image, if not the artist. Reproduced millions of times, the odyssey of this masterpiece is one of the fascinating and mysterious stories of the art world.

It was at the 1873 Salon that wealthy industrialist John Wolfe purchased it along with William Bouguereau's Nymphs and Satyr. The hand of fate seemed heavily involved, for it was in the fall of 1977 that I first viewed Nymphs and Satyr.

The power and beauty of this image led to my collecting works from this era and reevaluating my prior schooling. Despite a Master's of Art Education from Columbia, I had been deceived about 19th Century academic painting. Those artists were presented as vapid and inane bureaucrats, mindlessly following rules of technique — unemotional, uncreative and derivative. ALL LIES!

Laughably we were taught that great artists were like Cezanne, Matisse and Rothko who had spent their career breaking boundaries and telling the "truth" (i.e. the canvas was flat and the paint itself was wherein lay all true expression and beauty.) I have decided conclusively that what deserves to be called inane and vapid is spending one's entire career proving the canvas is flat.

It was John's sister, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, who convinced him to acquire these great works, which hung together in his home for 9 years. In 1882 Springtime was sold to Brooklyn collector David Lyall, and then from his estate in 1903 to Mrs. Goodenow and Mrs. Bigelow who loaned it to the Brooklyn Museum where it hung until 1938.

For unknown reasons it was returned to the Goodenow family, after which all trace was lost for the next 41 years. The scholar, James Henry Rubin, searched for it unsuccessfully for 12 years then writing a major article for Forbes' 19th Century magazine in 1980. That same year, a young dealer in New York, Joan Michelman, who was new to the high powered New York scene, found it in a flea bitten hotel in Wilkes Baar, Pennsylvania.

I soon received a call. Joan said she had just located a fabulous painting by Pierre August Cot. We had never heard of him, but she discovered that he painted a well-known work hanging in the Metropolitan Museum called The Storm. She had recently sold me a major Bouguereau and Alma-Tadema , thinking I might also want this.

When I saw the image, dirty, sideways, and with streaked varnish, something clicked inside...

She sent photos to several museums saying I'd better hurry if I wanted to be "in the running." I shrugged this off as a typical sales pitch. As I was due to be in the city the next day, I told her it would be my only opportunity for a viewing. She said it was dirty and unframed and seemed reluctant to show it as is. I said it was now or never.

The next day, we met at Manhattan Warehouse where she took me past an armed guard and down a dingy corridor lined with old paint-chipped doorways. When she opened her stall there was no light inside and a dank odor wafting from within made me gag. She had to borrow a flashlight for us to see.

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.

That night I thought of nothing else. I called that morning on a pretext, and before closing said, "Oh, did you hear anything on that Cot painting?" She said, "Fred, it's so frustrating. I don't understand. I thought everyone would respond."

Springtime is arguably the single greatest image of young romantic love ever conceived...

She asked USD $60,000 which back then, was a lot for an academic painting. I said, "Joan, it's not a Bouguereau, and that's the highest price that he's brought." The auction record for Cot was $7,500 in 1979, but for a minor piece. I said the most I'd pay was $35,000. We dickered and settled on $45,000.

Meanwhile, I found the aforementioned article written by Rubin, entitled "Who was Pierre August Cot?" It identified this piece as his lost masterpiece, reporting some lady had traded her $300,000 home for a fake version (he delightedly authenticated ours after its purchase).

Sources the writer knew valued the original at $3,000,000. I took such a lofty valuation with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, on Friday morning, I called saying I had to be in the city. It made sense to close the deal then, which we did. Next day she called me, woefully pleading to cancel. She heard from two museums, both agreeing to her initial price. She offered to split the difference ($7,500 each).

"Joan," I said, "I really want the painting." A year later she offered to buy it back for triple what I'd paid. I declined, but we remain good friends, and I consider her one of the few trustworthy dealers.

...the odyssey of this masterpiece is one of the fascinating and mysterious stories of the art world.

By 1985, the Met got wind that I owned the missing pendant to The Storm, which is one of the 5 most requested works at their information booth. It wasn't until 1995 that they asked to borrow it and hang them together. The insane climate against traditional painting was finally lifting. Even the modernist New York Times praised the event. It hung for three years with The Storm, featured in the 19th Century European Wing. I assigned them copyrights, and every year they sell about $70,000 worth of reproductions.

Pierre-Auguste Cot (French, 1837-1883)
Oil on canvas , 1873
203.2 x 127 cms | 80 x 50 ins
Pierre-Auguste Cot (French, 1837-1883)
Oil on canvas , 1880
234.3 x 156.8 cms | 92 x 61 1/2 ins

Somehow, Sotheby's learned it was being returned, to make room for other works from the Met's permanent collection. They convinced me it would sell incredibly at auction. Making the "deal" very attractive, and with family responsibilities in mind, I was swayed.

Everyone was shocked when it failed with a $1,400,000 reserve. There were suspicions, that someone at Christies' had bad-mouthed the piece, alleged revenge for not being chosen as seller. Sotheby's had a bid of $1,800,000, which was withdrawn, minutes before the sale.

Afterwards, I rejected 6 offers ranging up to $1,200,000. I was truly relieved to have it back. Springtime again, is one of the star attractions, for the scores of scholars, collectors, artists, and curators who make the pilgrimage to our collection.

Founder and Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, Ross is the leading authority on William Bouguereau and co author of the recently published Catalogue Raisonné William Bouguereau: His Life and Works.