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Thomas Couture: The History Painter


 “Crueller than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world.”

 (Roman poet Juvenal, (c.55-c.140 AD)

Quoted in the catalogue for 1847 Paris Salon, the line conveys a moral message hidden in the masterpiece of history paintings “The Romans of Decadence” painted by an influential French history painter and teacher Thomas Couture. Born on 21 December, 1815 at Senlis, Oise, France the portraitist moved to Paris with his family at the age of 11. As a student of Gros and Delaroche he pursued his study at the industrial arts school (École des Arts et Métiers ) and later at the École des Beaux-Arts and won the prestigious ‘Prix se Rome’ competition in 1837 after failing for six times at École.

Three years after winning the prize Couture began exhibiting historical and genre pictures at the Paris Salon and earned several medals for his works including his masterpiece “The Romans of Decadence” in 1847. Encouraged by this success he opened an independent atelier to challenge the École des Beaux-Arts and produced some best new history painters as Édouard Manet, John LA Farge, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, karel Javurek and J-N Sylvester.

His innovative techniques gained him three Government and Church commissions for murals during the late 1840s through 1850s but the first two was never completed and the third received mixed criticism. Perturbed by this reception he left Paris in 1860 and returned to his hometown of Senlis where he continued to teach young artists. In 1867 he published a book on his own ideas and working methods named ‘Méthode et entretiens d'atelier' (Methods and workshop interviews). Later the book was translated to “Conversations on Art Methods” in 1879.

When asked for an autobiography the republican painter responded, “ Biography is the exaltation of personality and personality is the scourge of our time.”

Leaving behind his “realist allegory” the painter died on 30 March 1879 at Villiers-le-Bel, Val-d’Oise, and was interred in Pére Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

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