Study for 'The Decadence of the Romans'

Described by Boime as 'the only significant compositional study that exists for the work' (Boime, op. cit., p. 141) Couture's drawing is the most vivid and complete graphic example of his vision for his masterpiece, The Decadence of the Romans, Paris, Musée d'Orsay (fig. 1), completed and exhibited at the Salon in 1847. Couture took the Roman satirist Juvenal's quotation 'We are suffering today from the fatal results of a long peace; more damaging than arms, luxury has rushed in upon us and avenged the enslaved universe' 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. Couture was following in the 19th Century tradition of addressing contemporary events on a grand, even epic scale. Unlike his predecessors Baron Gros and Géricault whose Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa and Raft of the Medusa (see lot 82) 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.

In terms of style, Couture considered the art of ancient Greece and Rome as well as Renaissance Italy and Flanders his stylistic predecessors. Yet he also embraced eclecticism, foregoing historical detail for a more generalized historicism. Beneath his iconoclasm however, there is an inescapable academic foundation which is expressed in his drawings. The present drawing is almost Poussin-esque in its mapping of figures with strong contours and blocks of shadows and highlights. There are slight differences between the composition of the painting and the drawing. There are fewer figures at the far left and right, and some of the figures in the background are not as fully developed as in the painting or are missing. For example, the woman at the far left with her arms raised does not appear in the drawing.

Many of Couture's drawings and paintings were destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Boime illustrates two preliminary sketches of figure groupings related to the painting (Boime, op. cit., p. 140, figs. VI.5 and VI.6). Two small studies in black chalk, one for the drinking cup (kylix) held by the man with his back to the viewer just right of center, and another for the head of the man wearing a blue robe at the far right of the painting are in the collection of Karen B. Cohen (P. Rosenberg, 'Thomas Couture: Two studies for the Decadence of the Romans (1847)', Master Drawings, XLVII, no. 4, 2009, p. 507, fig. 2). There is a pastel compositional sketch in the Louvre (Inv. 28901), and two replicas for the painting are recorded. One is in the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum, and the other is in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass. (Thomas American collections, op. cit., pp. 53-4).

Signature: Signed twice with initials 'T.C.' (lower left and right)

F.L. Klagsbrun, Thomas Couture and the Romans of the Decadence, unpublished Master's thesis, New York University, New York, 1958, fig. 7.

Thomas Couture: Paintings and Drawings in American collections, exhib. cat., Maryland, University of Maryland Art Gallery, 1970, p. 54, under no. 4.

A. Boime, Thomas Couture and the eclectic vision, New Haven and London, 1980, p. 141, fig. VI.7.


Mrs. Henry Potter Russel, Carmel, California.

About Thomas Couture

French, 1815-1879, Senlis, France, based in Villiers-le-Bel, France

Group Shows on Artsy

Old Master Drawings, Christie's Old Masters, New York