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Romans of the Decadence

Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Petronius Arbiter examined Couture’s Romans of the Decadence from a moral viewpoint:

”…[T]he world of art is today divided into two classes of artists – modern artists cherishing the beautiful and ethical and ‘modernistic’  flouting the beautiful and ethical….It is the spirit of the work which makes it moral or immoral. As Goethe said: ‘The spirit in which we act is the main matter; for spirit alone can transform action.’…Civilization means: to get away from the animal as far as possible – consistent with the preservation and perfection of the race. And therefore if there is one place on earth which should be free from animalism it is the world of art. It should be held sacred above everything else as the supreme lifting power, so far as the advancement of the race is concerned. But the modernists  have more and more soiled this world of art with either veiled or frankly immoral works under the hypothetical slogan ‘Liberty in Art!’…

 “When Thomas Couture painted The Romans of the Decadence he delivered the greatest sermon in paint ever rendered, and created the greatest ethical (not religious) decoration in the world….Couture chose this subject to preach not only to his own people – who at that time needed it badly – but to all mankind and in an enduring form, so that every good citizen of every country would, every time he saw this picture and pondered over it, recoil from going too far on the paths of selfishness and immorality. Therefore no more socially lifting subject could possibly have been chosen, since the ever present social danger in every community is, that we may forget the fundamental truth announced above, namely, that civilization in the last analysis means a getting away from the animal, and that we might slide back into the sensuality which insured the end of Rome. This conception of the subject is one of the most lofty and at the same time original in the history of art….As was shown in the November issue of the magazine: there are three kinds of beautiful lines – picturesque and angular lines, which jostle our eyes; graceful, serpentine lines, which cradle our eyes; and sublime pyramidal lines which lift the eyes heavenward. All these elements of beauty are employed in this great creation of Couture’s with a skill worthy of all praise….From the standpoint of expression note first that, instead of choosing vulgar and brutalized faces – as one silly modernist suggested that he should have done – he chose patricians, and represented them as handsome men and beautiful women. This makes the degeneracy all the more poignant, as it shows that in those decadent days even the finest of the race were degenerate… Couture could have made his men and women much more drunk and slobbering-over with animalism. But that would not have been patrician. Patricians rarely so far forget themselves as to become beastly, at least not in public….In short, this sermon to mankind is preached so completely, so clearly, gently, poetically; its symbolism is so easily read by any man of intelligence, that the title The Romans of the Decadence is all that is necessary to enable one to grasp quickly the full meaning.”

Arbiter, Petronius. “A Great Ethical Work of Art: The Romans of the Decadence by Couture,” The Art World, vol. 2, no. 6 (September 1917): 533, 534-35. 


Sharon Flescher speculates on the possible influence of Couture’s Romans of the Decadence on contemporary theater:

“Herculaneum, a grand opera in four acts, was presented for the first time on March 4, 1859, at the Paris Opera. The libretto was written by Joseph Mery, with portions added by several other writers. The opera is set in Naples in the year A.D. 79 during the reign of the Emperor Titus, one year after the conquest of Jerusalem and just before the eruption of Vesuvius.”

“Now we see the opera Herculaneum serving almost as a theatrical counterpart to Couture’s painting. One scene in particular brings to mind both the Couture and the Manet [Olympia]. It shows an enamored Helios, drunk with wine and passion, paying homage at the feet of Olympia, who regally reclines in her palace chamber.”

Sharon Flescher, “More on a Name: Manet’s Olympia and the Defiant Heroine in Mid-Nineteenth-Century France,” Art Journal, vol. 45, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 27, 28. 


Patricia Mainardi comments on the placement of Couture’s Romans of the Decadence at the opening of the Musée d’Orsay:

 “Installed at the crossing of the nave, in the sculpture court, is Thomas Couture’s The Romans of the Decadence, surely the most impressive setting for a single work of art since Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel….Most critics have commented on this installation, since, before the museum’s opening, this painting would not have been high on anyone’s list as the most important work of the period. [Curator] Françoise Cachin has defended the decision by pointing out that the picture had been exhibited at the Louvre all along (true, but hardly in a place of honor) and by stating repeatedly that at Orsay it is exhibited not as a painting but as part of the architectural décor. In this, of course, it in no way differs from the other art in the museum. Whether the museum officials acknowledge it, or not, the next generation of museum goers will undoubtedly draw the obvious conclusion from this installation: that The Romans of the Decadence is the preeminent painting of the period. ..[T]he public is not enlightened as to the reasons for this preeminence….

Couture was not, for example, acclaimed a major figure during his lifetime, as were Ingres and Delacroix. He was never elected to the academy, and, although the government did purchase The Romans of the Decadence, it purchased a good many other pictures as well….

If the work was not chosen for its historical importance, can we assume that its status was conferred by the curators as an aesthetic judgment? Apparently not, since Cachin’s explanation is only that Couture’s classical figures echo the neoclassical sculptures in the nave. Although Clésinger’s Woman Stung by a Serpent was shown and acclaimed in the 1847 salon along with the Couture, the work installed opposite Couture’s Romans at Orsay is Carpeaux’s Ugolino, no doubt because its classical forms echo those of the Couture.
 An even more serious issue is that the juxtaposition of works with such different meanings neutralizes the political criticism intended by The Romans of the Decadence, which caused a furor when first exhibited. At Orsay the painting is installed with its ideological opposites – academic neoclassical sculptures – to present a single ‘look,’ envisaged, as Cachin said, as part of the décor. This subservience of art to décor is, in fact, one of the most damaging criticisms leveled against the museum…”

Patricia Mainardi, “Postmodern History at the Musee d’Orsay,” October, vol. 41 (Summer 1987): 46-7.

About the Artist

Born: Senlis, 21 December 1815
Died: Villiers-le-Bel, 3 March 1879
Nationality: French