French artiste Thomas Couture (1815-1879) was a popular ‘History’ & ‘Classical’ painter of ‘Realist’ flavor, portraitist, and the teacher of the nineteenth century. ‘History Painting,’ considered the ‘grand genre’ for a long time, dates back to the ‘Renaissance’ era. Couture’s most famous painting “Romans in the Decadence of the Empire” belonged to this style of art. Apart from illustrating the historical events of the recent past, ‘History Painting’ pertains to the technique of capturing the scenes from Christian History, Classical History, and mythology. The paintings belonging to the historical genre are often based on religious, allegorical, or literary subjects, and usually carry a moral or an intellectual interpretation of life. Some of the most iconographic historical events have been depicted in these paintings. In addition, sometimes, artists took great liberties with the historical facts by creating even those events on canvas, which had not ever actually occurred.
Thomas Couture painted his most famous painting “Romans in the Decadence of the Empire” in the year 1847. This splendid work portrays on a monumental canvas, an orgy, which was interpreted as sarcasm or satire on the debauched regime of the July Monarchy under the French King Louis Philippe, during 1830 to 1848. “Romans in the Decadence of the Empire” conveys the moral corruption synonymous to the then Roman society. The scene takes place in an enormous hall, surrounded by tall marble pillars and beautiful statues. In the center of the hall, is a platform on which there are semi-naked men and women lying everywhere, completely engrossed in the frenzy of physical pleasure. They all seem inebriated or drunk, and a few of them are even shown dancing under the effect of intoxication. Outside, the clear blue sky shines bright, offering a striking contrast to the drunken madness inside the palace. Right in the front of the platform, a couple of well-sculpted urns are shown. Thomas’ respect and love for classical culture comes alive with his pulchritudinous display of Roman sculptures and architecture in “Romans in the Decadence of the Empire.”
The Roman Empire and civilization had an indelible influence on the cultures of almost all European nations. While under ‘Neoclassicism,’ the Roman architecture, art, and lifestyles were all borrowed by these nations, even the Roman decadence did not go unnoticed on that front. It brought about a time when people developed greater interest in the decline of the Roman Empire than in its grandeur. Thomas Couture also tried to express his version of social criticism through “Romans in the Decadence of the Empire,” which effectively criticized his contemporary French society. The painting, which won immense appreciation and accolades, now adorns the walls of Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.