Thomas Couture is one of those artists who were at the center of the artistic activity of their time, whose work was avidly commented at each year’s Salon, but who is largely forgotten today. He is now remembered primarily for his influence as a teacher of other artists, such as Edouard Manet and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and his great influence on American painting through a number of American artists who studied with him in Paris, most notably William Morris Hunt.
It turns out he was a very worthwhile painter in his own right, and a fascinating, if difficult, individual who played an important role in the Parisian art world from the 1830s to the 1860s. One encyclopedia puts Couture at the top of its list of academic painters, “skilled technicians without character or personality”. This was assuredly not the case of Couture, who was estranged from the École des Beaux-Arts, maintained problematic relations with the powers of the officialdom of art, and remained rooted in Jacobine, anticlerical, Rousseauist convictions. In short, he had more character and personality than was good for him.
Couture was born in Senlis, a small town about 30 miles north of Paris, in 1815. His father had given up his own professional aspirations and had adopted his own father’s profession of shoemaker. He carried his dreams over onto his son, who rebelled, showing no proclivity whatsoever to studies or ambitions of any sort. The young Thomas was, however, skilled at drawing. The family moved to Paris in 1826, and two years later his father enrolled him in the École Gratuite de Dessin at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers on rue Saint-Martin. Two years later he entered the atelier of Antoine-Jean Gros and, in 1831, was admitted to the École des Beaux Arts. Gros was a bit of a replacement father figure for Couture, which posed its own problems as Gros was given to despair, and died after throwing himself into the Seine in 1835.
One of Couture’s early works is Academy of a Woman, painted in the atelier of Gros around 1834. The painting is already impregnated with melancholia, like many of Couture’s most striking paintings. The pose is casual, there is no splendor in the nudity, just a pensive, and probably bored, model.
The theme came back in Couture’s first famous work, Jeune Vénitien après une orgie, dated 1840. The subject and the couple kissing in the very near background bring out the brooding mood of the main character, who holds his empty cup listlessly. I find that the work remarkably typifies the mood of resignation and pointlessness one can feel after excess. The execution is done with great care; especially in the draping of the clothes and in the colorings one cannot help thinking of Veronese.
In 1840 and 1841, Couture produced a whole series of works that “truly captivated the attention of the intelligent world”[Larousse]: Retour des champs, La veuve, L’enfant prodigue. My favorite is another melancholic portrait: Rêverie, in which a young woman is caught in a pensive pose. She is unadorned, hair down, an image of natural beauty. As often with Couture, the background is plain and, together with the darkness of the hair, brings out the lightness of the subject’s face, neck and shoulders.
Couture also produced a portrait of the famous historian Jules Michelet which, although rejected on completion by both Couture and Michelet, has some qualities.
In 1844, Couture painted a charming Jocondo, inspired by a scene in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a subject revived more recently in Charles-Guillaume Étienne’s Joconde ou les coureurs d’aventures. It is a comic subject, and receives light treatment, the flirtatious glance between the girl and the boy, relaxed poses of these common people, the small cat in the midst of a typical cat-like movement is a respite from the more serious society that continues in the background.
In the salon that year, the more successful piece by Couture was the Love of Gold. Reviewers admired the skill in the painting and the use of color, linking it to Diaz and Murillo and the Spanish school. With this painting, “success took the proportions of enthusiasm” [Larousse]. Théophile Gautier was among those excited by this young artist’s work.
His next major work Les Romains de la décadence, received, according to Albert Boime “more public attention than any other painting in the nineteenth century” [Boime, p. 131]. It was seen to represent all the decadence of the July Monarchy. All in all, there is not much in it to make it remarkable to a modern viewer, but in its time in spurred a remarkable enthusiasm. It certainly proved Couture’s ability in a complex composition.
After Les Romains de la décadence, Couture began teaching in his own studio, which became very well-attended in the 1850s. Couture became a very influential teacher, with the result that he later was remembered more for his influence on future artists than for his own work. His most famous student was Edouard Manet, who studied with him from 1850 to 1856. But there were others, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Anselm Feuerbach and William Morris Hunt.
In 1855, Couture’s Fauconnier was presented at the Universal Exposition held in Paris that year – even though the painting actually dates from ten years earlier. For one critic, this painting was “what he has done best so far […] masterfully rendering the charms of a palette that reminds one of the splendors of Titian.” [Larousse]
At this point, Couture was drawn into official commissions, which turned out to be complete fiascos. First there was The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792, which, despite a great deal of work that Couture put into it, was abandoned as political circumstances changed. Then a Baptême du prince impérial which ended with Couture thoroughly alienating Nieuwerkerke, Fould and the imperial couple itself. There is also some unremarkable religious art dating from 1856 that can be seen in Saint-Eustache church in Paris.
At the same time, Couture produced some works that returned to the subjects and the moods where he was at his best, like Supper After the Masked Ball, another scene of post-debauchery – in this one the character at the center is Couture himself – and Un cuirassier.
The theme of melancholy returns, central, in Les bulles de savon. According to Boime, the theme of this painting is sloth: “instead of opening his books, a youth turns to play and daydreams his time away”. I certainly see that in another, inferior, version of the painting that hangs at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. But in the New York version I see a sombre mood; the boy’s melancholy has a very serious air. It strikes me that, even though the soap bubbles are floating in the air, the boy is completely at rest, and shows no sign of having recently made a movement to blow the bubbles. The fact that he is so completely motionless evokes for me a mood that is more meditative than playful.
In the early 1860s, Couture moved back to Senlis. Despite being only forty-five years old, it seems that he wanted reclusion, not to have to endure the compromises and humiliations of the art world, the freedom to speak his mind freely and brutally, which he did in a series of highly influential books he published called the Entretiens. He made some last works of quality, such as a Damoclès, a Young Italian, and a Jeune italien jouant de la flûte. He died in Villiers-le-Bel in 1879.
Academy of a Young Woman, c. 1834, Musee Vendéen, Fontenay-le-Comte
Portrait de Eloy Chapsal, 1834, Musée Hippolyte de Parieu, Aurillac
Jeune Vénitien après une orgie, 1840, private collection, Montrouge
La veuve, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Rêverie, c. 1840-1, Norton Simon Collection, Los Angeles
Retour des champs, 1841, whereabouts unknown
Le fils prodigue, c. 1841, Nouveau Musée des Beaux-Arts, Le Havre
Le troubadour, 1843, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Horace et Lydie, 1843, Wallace Collection, London
Portrait de Jules Michelet, 1843, Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Jocondo, 1844, Heim Gallery, London
L’amour de l’or, 1844, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
Le fauconnier, c. 1844-5, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
Les Romains de la décadence, 1847, Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792, 1848 et seq., Musée Départemental de l’Oise, Beauvais
Supper After the Masked Ball, c, 1855-6, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Baptême du prince impérial, 1856 et seq., Musée de Compiègne, Compiègne
Un cuirassier, c. 1856-8, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
Les bulles de savon, 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Damoclès, 1866, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen
Jeune italien, c. 1876-7, Musé des Beaux-Arts, Lille
Jeune italien jouant de la flûte, c. 1876-7, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis
Thomas Couture, Méthode et entretiens d’atelier, Paris, 1867.
Thomas Couture, Thomas Couture, sa vie, son oeuvre, son caractère, ses idées, sa méthode, Le Garrec, Paris, 1932.
Roger Ballu, Catalogue des oeuvres de Thomas Couture exposées au palais de l’industrie, A. Quantin, Paris, 1880.
Albert Boime, Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1980.
Pierre Vaisse, Thomas Couture, ou le bourgeois malgré lui, Romantisme, 1977, volume 7, numéro 17-18, pages 103-122.
Extrait de Thomas Couture, dans le Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siècle de Pierre Larousse (Administration du Grand Dictionnaire Universel, Paris, 1869)
Peintre français né à Senlis en 1815. Jeune encore, il se fit remarquer à l’atelier de Gros par les rares aptitudes d’un véritable tempérament de peintre. La verve grandiose des Pestiférés de Jaffa devait être sympathique à l’imagination bouillonnante de l’élève; aussi la mort prématuré de son maître fut-elle, à notre avis, un malheur pour lui. Paul Delaroche, esprit froid et réfléchi, en prenant la direction de l’atelier, dut en modifier la tradition, et M. Couture fut sans doute plus d’une fois contrarié dans ses aspirations instinctives, que Gros eût mieux comprises et mieux développées. De cette lutte entre l’éducation et le tempérament viennent, croyons-nous, le désordre relatif, les défaillances qu’on observe dans l’oeuvre de cet artiste, qui n’est pas monté au premier rang, bien qu’il eût les qualités nécessaires pour y briller.
Il a tenté depuis, pour obéir sans doute à de hautes sollicitations, quelques essais dans la peinture officielle ; il a peint le Retour des troupes de Crimée et le Baptême du prince impérial. A-t-il réussi ? Hélas, non ! Et c’est heureux d’ailleurs. Cela prouve que Couture a la personnalité trop robuste, trop primesautière pour se plier docile, passif, à l’imprévu des idées d’autrui, à l’étrangeté des inspirations étrangères.
Pourquoi semble-t-il maintenant s’éloigner de l’arène ? Pourquoi laisse-t-il le silence se faire autour de lui ? Il est jeune encore, et nous espérons qu’une belle page viendra bientôt nous faire oublier la Décadence et nous rappeler le beau Fauconnier.