When history painting was en vogue in nineteenth-century France, Thomas Couture ranked among the top tier of the genre. Born December 21, 1815, Couture painted his epic Romans in the Decadence of the Empire (above) in 1847, announcing himself as a force in the Paris Salon. A student of Antoine Jean Gros and Hippolyte Delaroche, Couture absorbed the neo-classicism of Jacques-Louis David (Gros’ teacher) as well as the Romanticism of Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Gericault (friends of Delaroche). Amidst such esteemed company, Couture held his own as the art world around him began to evolve from the days of David to the new age of Manet.
Artists of the next generation, most notably Edouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes sought out Couture as a teacher. Couture’s Female Head (above, from 1857) demonstrates how he began to adopt some of the conventions of the time after history painting began to lose its prized place in the art world. Couture paints a young, modern woman with a confident look in her eye, mirroring the new assertive female of the nineteenth-century yearning for equal rights. Perhaps learning something from his students, Couture tired of the stuffiness of the Salon and went on his own way, teaching and painting free of all constraints.
Sadly, Couture could never fully bridge the generational gap and embrace the new wave led by Manet. His Damocles (above, from 1866) shows a return to the classical themes of his younger days. Couture’s ability to infuse a psychological life to his figures always remained, regardless of his choice of genre. We truly believe that Damocles dreads the infamous sworld perilously hanging above him. In his later days, Couture couldn’t bring himself to appreciate the work of his independent students, especially Manet. Looking at Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker, Couture snapped, “There is only one absinthe drinker, and that’s the man who painted this idiotic picture.” The painter of grand history paintings couldn’t abide the emphasis on the present and the individual artist. When asked to write his autobiography, Couture lamented that "biography is the exaltation of personality—and personality is the scourge of our time." Couture never gave in to the temptation of personality, preferring to slip gently into the shadows of the past.