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

Video transcript

to be an artist in the middle of the 19th century but to live with competing needs it's probably similar in a way to being an artist now when is a question asked whether or not all the things that have defined what art is are still relevant that was exactly what the question was in the middle of the nineteenth century what had made art relevant were things like serious moral subjects or painting in the classical style but that no longer seemed to make sense in a country crisscross by railroads with a growing middle class culture factories this is a culture that was in the middle of an enormous revolution the Industrial Revolution we're in the middle of an enormous museum the musee d'orsay and we're looking at an enormous painting that's true who 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 so 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 and what Couture has done is bring those two things together he's using this ancient Roman subject to talk about the decline of French culture he's criticizing the French government so this is so interesting because generally when we think of art that harks back to ancient Rome it's all about the heroism but this is about the dissolution the moral corruption this is about the indulgence of ancient Rome at its end and he's contrasting the figures who are seeking luxury and pleasure against the heroic 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 and now was slipping itself into a kind of decadence symbolized not only in the sculptures of the heroes that we see but it's also in that arc texture which speaks of Roman Republican ideals of what Roman culture was able to build and achieve but the figures in the foreground are idle look at the formal 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 language pleasure-seeking are a series of arabesques of curves of horizontals in a sense they've lost their human quality they've become almost animal-like they don't seem to belong within this 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 well that's I think really part of the brilliance of this painting there's a clarity of line and light and shadow in the foreground and because of the scale of the painting this figures are life-size we feel as if we can enter into that foreground that's our world but everything behind them the architecture the sculptures and especially the landscape all of that is inaccessible to us this painting was enormous ly popular when it was exhibited in 1847 and Couture was a very successful and important artist during this period and 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 artists pursue and paint Modern Life subjects so I think he really personally felt this conflict for artists to look to the class of a path but also this need to paint the contemporary world the other thing to keep in mind is this is 1847 one year before France will change forever it's one year before the Revolution of 1848 that toppled the monarchy and brings in a brief period of France's democracy the period we call the Second Republic and as the monarchy is toppled again in France the art also changes in 1848 you have corbeil beginning to establish the ideas of realism painting the working class instead of the heroic Romans in 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 world 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 and it makes it all the more clear just how brave Courbet was in putting all of this mythology all of his classical style behind him and embracing on a scale just as large as Couture the working classes the middle classes of France but of course Couture is older and established and one of the leading painters infants and you can see the struggle by an artist not yet fully willing to embrace the new world and yet knows that things must change you