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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Thomas Couture

WOW! Just the thing for decorating your indoor tennis court.
There's a lot to be said as to the Internet being the greatest teaching tool yet invented by man, far outstripping books, TV, and motion pictures. That's true in most fields but especially so in the case of art. It might be going too far to say that every work of art in the world can be found on the internet, but certainly examples of every type of art can be accessed by a computer, a search engine, and someone adept at using them. However, there is one aspect of art that the Internet is not good at rendering; and that is scale. A painting four by six inches very often looks much like one four by six feet. A couple years ago, this simple fact was brought home to me as I wearily trekked through the Orsay Museum in Paris where I came upon Thomas Couture's Romans of the Decadence (above). I'd seen the painting many times before online and in books but I was truly stunned in seeing its immense size in person. Couture's single greatest masterpiece is some twenty-five feet wide and fifteen feet tall. As the photo reveals, it dwarfs the viewer in every way. It's like standing before a life-size Roman orgy!
An artist who never lived up to his potential.
As French artists go, Thomas Couture was strange on several levels. Born in 1815 in the Province of Oise (north-central France) in the small town of Senlis, his family moved to Paris when he was eleven. He attended both the École des Arts et Métiers and the École des Beaux-Arts. He studied under such academic luminaries as Antoine-Jean Gros and Paul Delaroche becoming something of a "dyed in the wool" academician in his early years. During Couture's student years, and those in which he struggled for public recognition, sales, and respectable prices for his work, the ultimate goal of every young artist was to have work accepted into the Paris Salon and win the "jackpot" prize of an all expenses-paid, year-long trip to Rome (the Prix de Rome) in order to study at the French academy there.

Kiss of Judas, Thomas Couture
Perhaps one of the reasons Romans of the Decadence was so massive is that Couture had tried (and failed) six times to win this prestigious honor. Perhaps his thinking was that if his salon entry was the biggest, most decadent painting in the show, everyone (including especially the jury), would set up and take notice. Although Couture's Kiss of Judas (left) had been well-received, Ro-mans of the Decadence was con-sidered his best work to date. What-ever the case, the ploy worked. In 1847, at the ripe old age of thirty-two, he WON! He was off to Rome to study the Renaissance, Greek, and Roman antiquities firsthand! On top of that, the French government pur-chased the painting.

Romans of the Decadence, 1847, Thomas Couture
Thomas Couture has long been considered by art historians as something of a "one hit wonder." That's not entirely fair, though in fact, he was a man who, it would seem, would rather preach and teach art than create it. During his lifetime he left at least two major commissions unfinished. His students, on the other hand, include such painting icons as Edouard Manet, Eastman Johnson, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and John Lafarge. He also published a textbook of sorts, Method and Workshop Interviews, which was later retranslated to Conversations on Art Methods.

Romans of the Decadence, (central detail)
Central sculpture detail
Inasmuch as Romans of the Decadence would seem to be Couture's major claim to fame, it's only just that we should take a closer look at this decadent monstrosity. First of all, it was not the first or last such orgiastic depiction to derive from French art. The French, along with the British and a few other nationalities loved painting sexual immorality. Of course to do so, society demanded that artists in no way glorify such debauchery, but instead condemn it, though the latter was often much more subtle than the former. A woman is the central figure (above), placed so that she will draw all eyes. She is stretched out in the middle of a large crowd of people who are abandoning themselves to all the vices that were said to have led to the downfall of Rome. The scene is framed by five larger-than-life-size sculptures (right) representing men from Roman history, their gestures seeming to demand a return to virtue.

Romans of the Decadence (left-central detail).
In the center-left detail of the painting, Couture has placed a group of debauched revelers, exhausted and disillusioned, or still drinking and dancing. In the foreground is a figure who is not taking part in the drunken revels having already succumbed to a drunken stupor. On the far left, a melancholic boy leans on a column. Meanwhile, on the far right (below) two foreign visitors cast a disapproving eye over the scene.

Romans of the Decadence, (far-right detail)
It took Thomas Couture three years to complete The Romans of the Decadence. He wanted to give fresh impetus to French painting by referring rather conventionally to the masters of ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the Flemish school. The work is a history painting, regarded as the noblest genre during the 19th-century. It therefore had to represent human behavior and convey a moral message. This was explained by Couture himself, who quoted two lines from the first-century Roman poet, Juvenal, in the catalogue for the 1847 Salon where the painting was exhibited: "Crueler than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world". Apart from illustrating an ancient text, Couture was also alluding to French society of his time. A Jacobin, Republican, and anticleric, he criticized the moral decadence of France under the July monarchy, the ruling class of which had been discredited by a series of scandals. This painting is therefore a "realist allegory." The art critics of 1847 were quick to see in these Romans "The French of the Decadence."

The Realist, 1865, Thomas Couture
Couture's innovative techniques gained much attention, resulting in his receiving government and church commissions for murals during the late 1840s and 1850s. He never completed the first two commissions while the third met with mixed reviews. Angered by the unfavorable reception of his murals, in 1860 he left Paris, for a time returning to his hometown of Senlis, where he continued to teach young artists who came to him. Couture was among the first to realize the danger arising from contempt of technique. He saw the mastery of craftsmanship as needed to express even the loftiest ideas, and that an ill-drawn colored cartoon could never be the supreme achievement in art. In his satirical painting The Realist (above) can be seen a painted caricature of Realism. He used this canvas to criticize the new direction in painting, whose adherents preferred everyday, and sometimes trivial, subjects, to literary or historical themes. This particular realist has 'demeaned' himself to such an extent that he is willing to portray a pig, a symbol of stupidity. Insignificant, everyday objects hang on the wall while the painter displays scant respect for classical culture. He is seated on a sculpted head of the Greek god, Zeus. Couture himself generally painted more exalted subjects, in a style better suited to the academic tradition.

Portrait of a Young Boy, Thomas Couture


  1. Marvelous bio, historically revealing. Good read.

    (Little typo you might want to correct for posterity "first0century Roman poet,")

    1. Thanks, Max, the "0" key is a little too close to the "-" key. Happens all the time. Usually I or my spellchecker catches it but this time...