The Romans in their Decadence (French – Les Romains de la décadence) is a painting by the French artist Thomas Couture, first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1847, a year before the 1848 Revolution which toppled the Monarchy. It was the most highly-praised work at the Salon. Reminiscent of the style of Raphael, it is typical of the French ‘academie’ style between 1850 and 1900. It now belongs to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Thomas Couture (1815 – 1879) was a French history painter and teacher. In 1840 he began exhibiting historical and genre pictures at the Paris Salon, earning several medals for his works, in particular for his masterpiece, Romans During the Decadence (1847 pictured above). Shortly after this success, Couture opened an independent atelier meant to challenge the École des Beaux-Arts by turning out the best new history painters.
It took Thomas Couture three years to complete The Romans of the Decadence 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 behaviour 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: “Cruller than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world”. (words from Musée d’Orsay)
In the centre 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 criticised 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”, and the art critics of 1847 were quick to see in these Romans “The French of the Decadence”.
View the works of Thomas Couture.
Depths of Glory, A Biographical Novel of Camille Pissarro by Irving Stone p.148