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Saturday Art: Romans in the Decadent Times, by Thomas Couture

Romains de la decadence [Romans in the Decadent Times] by Thomas Couture hangs in the D’Orsay. It is an enormous painting, 25 feet wide and 15 feet high, and it is located on the main floor the focus of which is French statues from the second half of the 19th century. These statues set the mood for the Couture. Here are two examples: Woman Stung by a Serpent, by Auguste Clésinger and A Young Tarentine, by Alexandre Schoenewerk. Here is a video of The Young Tarentine, it gives a feel for the work and its location in the Museum.

These three pieces are so over the top, I need to point out that one of my favorite statues is here also, Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, so it isn’t all tortured souls.

The painting is set in a courtyard in Rome in the early evening, I’d say, judging by the sky. The Romans are having a party, and things are out of hand. There are lots of nudes and barely clothed people; clothing is strewn all around; and there are drinks and passed-out drunks. Someone knocked over a vase in the center. On the upper right, a naked man offers a drink to a statue, ignored by all but one woman. In the center, there is a woman clothed in white, the only fully clothed woman in the painting. All around the courtyard are statues of the ancient Romans, and classical columns. On the lower right there are two well-dressed and muscular men not participating. On the left, a poorly dressed young man sits looking away. The colors are dark, and the flesh of the debauched is sickly, with black or dark brown undertones. The image above is accurate on that score, the original might be a bit more pale.  . . .

The painting couldn’t be more obvious. The Romans have lost the virtues that made them great, pride, austerity, purpose, all exemplified by the statues, with their disapproving glares. The two men on the right are standing in poses often seen in French court paintings, but their clothing is not the luxurious finery of the royalty but that of everyday people. I read this to say that virtue resides in the common people, that the royalty and the rich have no place in the future. Couture was a Jacobin and a Republican, and the painting may be an allegory, where the decadent Romans are the French aristocracy, and the two young men are the New French Citizens. Or not.

I have always loved this painting. The nude with her back to us on the lower left seems to refer to a standard pose of nudes, like this: La Grande Odalisque, by Ingres. The nude in the upper left reminds me of the tortured works of Michaelangelo, like this one, a detail from the Sistine Chapel depicting The Flood.

I love the bombastic morality, the size, and the references. Where would we be without grandiose Art?

[Image: Les Romains de la décadence, c. 1847 by Thomas Couture (source: Wikipedia)]

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