Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Art Blogging: Thomas Couture

Thomas Couture (1815-1879) was a French historical and portrait painter. He studied under Antoine-Jean Gros and Paul Delaroche. Despite his early recognition as a prodigy, he never won the Prix de Rome. Sensing rejection by the internal politics of the Parisian art world, he became a staunch critic of Academic training, particularly that of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Couture nevertheless remained a part of the Academic movement and eventually won the Salon prize in 1847. His reputation has declined since his death and he is often seen by art historians as a near-parody of Academic pomposity. Couture nevertheless impacted future generations as a teacher and counted Eduard Manet, Eastman Johnson and John LaFarge among his pupils.
The Romans of the Decadance (oil on canvas, 1847, Musee D'Orsay). Couture was and is most famous for this one painting. In a sense, Couture can be classed as a 'one-hit wonder'. This massive 15 by 25-foot painting dominated the 1847 Salon competition and won him the grand prize. Beyond its astonishingly rich detail, what was unique about this painting is that it did not hold up the Classical world as a paragon of civilization, but of corruption and moral decay. In this, Couture can be said to be an artistic equivalent to King Louis-Phillippe's call for a more austere, unpretentious, and moral lifestyle by the wealthy.

Pierrot the Politician (oil on canvas, 1857, in the Wallace Collection). Pierrot was a stock character in European theatre for centuries. He was usually depicted as a playful, idealistic fool always cheated and swindled by others. He was a favorite subject matter for Couture.
The Kiss of Judas (oil on canvas, private collection). This is one of Couture's handful of religiously-themed works. The lighting and draping in this work are excellent. Christ stares off into the distance, mentally separated from the events around him. He crosses his hands in preparation to be bound, and waits his ordeal to begin.

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