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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:46

Video transcript

(piano playing) Beth: To be an artist in the middle of the 19th century was to live with competing needs. Steven: It's probably similar in a way to being an artist now when there's a questions asked whether or not all the things that have defined what art is are still relevant. Beth: That was exactly what the question was in the middle of the 19th century. What had made art relevant were things like serious moral subjects or painting in the classical style. That no longer seemed to make sense in a country criss-crossed by rail roads, with a growing middle class culture, factories. This is a culture that was in the middle of an enormous revolution, the industrial revolution. Steven: We're in the middle of an enormous museum, the Musee d'Orsay. Beth: And we're looking at an enormous painting. Steven: That's true, we are. This is Thomas Couture's The Romans of the Decadence from 1847. This is a museum that is dedicated to the art and the trials that you were talking about, what it meant to invent an art that was modern. Beth: The crisis for artists was, "Should I embrace the modern world "or do I go back and paint the classical "and the moralizing, the history painting?" What Couture has done is bring those 2 things together. He's using this ancient Roman subject to talk about the decline of French culture. He's criticizing the French government. Steven: This is so interesting because generally when we think of art that harks back to Ancient Rome, it's all about the heroism. This is about the dissolution, the moral corruption. This is about the indulgence of ancient Rome at its end and his contrasting the figures who are seeking luxury and pleasure against the heroicized sculptures of these people's own heroic past drawing an equivalency to French culture in his day that France had lost the values of the revolution. Now it was slipping itself into a decadence. Beth: Symbolized not only in the sculptures of the heroes that we see but is also in that architecture which speaks of Roman republican ideals of what Roman culture was able to build and achieve, but the figures in the foreground are idle. Steven: Look at the form of construction of the painting. The sculptures are all upright, there's a sense of rectitude. The architecture is a series of uprights and horizontals that create a perfect geometry. But the figures, in their indulgence, in their languid pleasure seeking are a series of arabesques, or curves, of horizontals. In a sense they've lost their human quality, they've become almost animal like. Beth: They don't seem to belong within the space and yet it's the debauchery that he represents clearly and the architecture begins to fade into the background as though there's a sense of that noble past becoming myth against the reality of the decadence of the Romans. Steven: That's I think, really, part of the brilliance of this painting. There's a clarity of line and light shadow in the foreground. Because of the scale of the painting, there figures are life size. We feel as if we can enter into that foreground, that's our world. Everything behind them, the architecture, the sculptures and especially the landscape, all of that is inaccessible to us. Beth: This painting was enormously popular when it was exhibited in 1847 and Couture was a very successful and important artist during this period. Although his personal values politically were republican and by that we mean he was very much for France as a democracy and not as a monarchy. He even advocated as a teacher that artist pursue and paint modern life subjects. I think he really personally felt this conflict for artists to look to the classical past but also this need to paint the contemporary world. Steven: The other thing to keep in mind is this is 1847, one year before France will change forever. Beth: It's one year before the revolution of 1848 that topples the monarchy and brings in a brief period of France's democracy, the period we call the 2nd republic. Steven: As the monarchy is toppled again in France, the art also changes. In 1848 you have Courbet beginning to establish the ideas of realism. Beth: Painting the working class instead of the heroic Romans. Steven: This is so interesting 1848, one year after this is painted Marx and Engels will publish The Communist Manifesto. This idea of the increasing power of the worker, of a modern worlds where labor unions will begin to form, where the nation is ruled by its cities as opposed to an agricultural economy. This is just a moment of extraordinary transition. This kind of academic style will now be seen from this point on as retrograde. Beth: It makes it all the more clear just how brave Courbet was in putting all of these mythology, all of these classical style behind him and embracing, on a scale just as large as Couture, the working classes, the middle classes of France. Steven: Of course, Couture is older and established and one of the leading painters in France. You can see the struggle by an artist not yet fully willing to embrace the new world and yet knows that things must change. (piano playing)