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Couture, Romans of the Decadence

Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence, 1847 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker For more art history videos visit smarthistory.org. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Alex
    At they talk about the dilemma the artists during this time period faced between embracing the modern world and painting the classical morals. What are some similar dilemmas that artists struggle with today when deciding how to paint?
    (8 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user AMANDEEP
    Why is everyone naked or almost naked? Was this a certain culture or custom? I am not trying to be immature, I just want to know
    (3 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Inger Hohler
      The artist is actually making a point that the people you see are not behaving as they should do, according to traditional Roman values. The traditional values may not have been respected, except for by a few. There are plenty of lurid tales about sexual excesses and revelry among the aristocracy. However, to be portrayed drunk, as one or two of the figures in the foreground seem to be, or to indulge in lavish luxury, or only half clothed was quite scandalous. This was a bit like making an art exhibition from paparazzi shots of famous people in compromised situations.
      (9 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Skye Temperamental
    There is a natural "frame". Anyone else see it?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Thomas Deprez
      The frame consists of the architectural surrounding and backdrop. Though at the base it is framed by the podium on which the figures lay, but the floor extends itself so as to open up for and invite the viewer to enter the scene and be part of the decandence.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user michellefacosphd
    Why is Beth "girl" and Steven "man" in the text? no need to reply, but please fix!
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Youtube auto-generated subtitles are done by a computer making guesses. Even the instructional video by Youtube about the auto-generated subtitles says that they're ridiculous. I suggest you listen to the video, make your own transcript of it, then share that with the good folks at Smarthistory, who could substitute your work for that which was done by a computer.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user natalie xx
    what was the social impact of romans of the decadence? did it inspire any change within society?
    (1 vote)
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  • primosaur seed style avatar for user Victoria  Bigliano
    There are also strong moral overtones in this work that are reflected in the central reclining figure. She shows a look of boredom and detachment from the debauchery that is happening around her. She is the soul of the painting, meaning the same Roman excesses that led to the decline of the empire can easily lead to our own decline if we use the power of the world as an end unto itself. At best we become bored and desensitized, at worst we become a catalyst for upheavals that are very difficult to reverse. If there is a 'fulcrum' here to be seen between the classical backdrop framing the figures (tradition) and the movement away from democracy to Communistic ideals (reimagining the future) then it is seen in this woman's face.

    I think it is important to comment of the emergence of photography (at about the same time this work was completed), especially in France as even a bigger motive for change in art, traditional artistic techniques, and the need to reimagine the future forms and shapes art will take. Why paint realistically when the camera can capture it all in a moment? It would take the fantastic color of the Impressionists to answer that question and keep art paced ahead of technology. Many credit the Impressionists and especially Cezanne as the real break between academy art and modernism.
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf yellow style avatar for user Jacob
    The focal point of the painting is the central, upright statue, which leads me to believe it's supposed to be conveying some significant message. But what? Is the central statue a particular historical figure? Also, it appears the statue is holding something in his right hand--something that seems to have broken off and been lost. What was he holding, and how does this contribute to the overall message of the painting?
    (1 vote)
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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)