French, 1815–1879


Born in Senlis, Thomas Couture trained under Antoine Jean Gros (1771–1835) from 1830–38 and then Hyppolite (Paul) Delaroche (1797–1856) from 1838–1839. Talented and ambitious, he was awarded second prize in the Prix de Rome in 1837, and this failure to win left him with a lifelong animosity towards the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He exhibited at the Paris Salon for the first time in 1838 with Young Venetian after an Orgy. While his early works were anecdotal genre scenes, his earliest true successes came with Thirst for Gold in 1845, and Romans during the Decadence in 1847, for which he was awarded a first-class medal.

As it became a popular allegorical criticism of the current government in nineteenth-century France, The Romans during the Decadence was purchased by the state despite these allegations. It took Thomas Couture three years to complete the piece, the proportions of which betray grand artistic ambitions. He wanted to give fresh impetus to French painting and to do so referred, 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 Roman poet Juvenal, (c. 55-c.140 AD) in the catalogue for the 1847 Salon where the painting was exhibited: "Crueller than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world.” In the center of the painting, Couture has placed a group of debauched revelers, exhausted and disillusioned or still drinking and dancing. In the foreground are three men who are not taking part in the drunken revels: on the left, a melancholic boy sitting on a column and on the right two foreign visitors casting a disapproving eye over the scene. The antique statues looming above the group also seem to be condemning the orgy. Apart from illustrating an ancient text, Couture was alluding to French society of his time. A Jacobin, Republican and anticlerical, he criticized the moral decadence of France under the July monarchy, whose ruling class had been discredited by a series of scandals. This painting is therefore a "realist allegory,” and the art critics of 1847 were quick to see in these Romans "The French of the Decadence."

The only significant compositional study that exists for the painting is a drawing by the same name, and the most vivid and complete graphic example of his vision for this masterpiece. Couture took the Roman satirist Juvenal's quotation as his inspiration for a scene after a Roman orgy and used it as a commentary on the decadence of French society under the July Monarchy. Unlike his predecessors Gros and Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) whose Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa (1804) and Raft of the Medusa (1824) depict modern events, Couture chose an ancient Roman setting for a modern political commentary. This choice was more akin to Jacques-Louis David's use of ancient history to espouse the virtues of the French Revolution, and later Napoleon's regime.

Couture regarded the art of ancient Greece and Rome as well as Renaissance Italy and Flanders with respect and considered them his stylistic predecessors. He also embraced eclecticism, foregoing historical detail for a more generalized historicism. Beneath his iconoclasm, however, there is an inescapable academic foundation that is expressed in his drawings.

He also tried his hand at official painting, producing most notably Baptism of the Prince Imperial (c. 1856–62), but this canvas was not up to the same standard as his previous works. In March 1851 he was commissioned to decorate the chapel of the Virgin in the church of St-Eustache in Paris. He painted the Virgin in Majesty in the center, and a Stella Maris (The Star of the Sea, and Protecter of the Shipwrecked) and Consolatrix Afflictorum (Consoler of the Afflicted) on the two side panels. Several preliminary sketches from this project have survived.

Couture never repeated the success of Romans during the Decadence, and despite commissions from Napoleon III (1808–1873) and mural schemes, further public recognition eluded him. He returned to Senlis in 1859 and painted portraits and decorative paintings based on the commedia dell'arte for private patrons. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Couture opened an atelier where he proved an innovative and influential teacher; Édouard Manet (1832–1883), Édouard Puvis de Chavannes (1884–1924), and Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880) were amongst his pupils.

Museum Collections:
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Brooklyn Museum, New York City, NY
Canton Museum of Art, Canton, OH
Castello Sforzesco, Milan
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Dahesh Museum, New York, NY
Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, Cambridge
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
Harvard University Museums, Boston, MA
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN
Musée Boucher-de-Perthes, Abbeville
Musée d’Art Roger-Quilliot, Clermont-Ferrard
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Musée de Morlaix, Morlaix
Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, Caen
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, Rouen
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Musées du Mans, Mans
Musées du Second Empire, Compiègne
Musée Fabre, Montpellier
Musée Ingres, Montauban
Musée Magnin, Dijon
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
The Huntington Library, San Marino CA
The Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
The Wallace Collection, London
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD
Valtoin Taidemuseo (Finnish National Gallery), Helsinki
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal

Mark Murray Fine Paintings is a New York gallery specializing in buying and selling 19th century and early 20th century artwork. 

Please contact us if you are interested in selling your Thomas Couture paintings or other artwork from the 19th century and early 20th century.