Thomas Couture: Caught Between Worlds

Thomas Couture: Caught Between Worlds

Author: Andy Shield

Have you ever found yourself torn between the will of your mind and the overwhelming pull of your heart? Driven by new ideas yet fearful of embracing change?

French artist Thomas Couture (1815-1879) found himself in this position - anchored by the rocks of traditional thinking yet tethered to the raging forces of modernity.

During the early 19th-century, European art exhibitions were generally one dimensional. Viewers would attend palatial salons crammed floor to ceiling with hundreds of works.

François Joseph Heim (1787-1865), Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1827

The paintings on show were usually rooted in the classical world and tastefully uncontroversial. Exhibitors of the day were academy trained and adhered to strict protocols regarding how and what they could create. Artists such as Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) adorned the walls with intellectual history pieces and precise religious works.

Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil (1854)

But towards the middle of the century, whispers of a revolution were afoot and a wave of artists sought modernity - to create art that spoke of today, not yesteryear. Their voices appealed to a younger generation - yet were ignored by the establishment.

In the midst of all this, surrounded by a swirling current of change, French artist, Thomas Couture (1815-1879), opened his own school to challenge some of the long-held methods of traditional teaching. He’d been successfully exhibiting at the Paris Salon for several years but saw a decline in the standard of painting in France - particularly history painting.

Thomas Couture, Self Portrait

Underpinning his approach was a desire for artists to immerse themselves in nature and work hard to overcome the shadows of the past.

“...follow the teachings of the earth ; be more frankly French in form, and your art will equal in grandeur and in majesty the most splendid Venetian pages. You become not copyists but equals of the Greeks.“

In his own way, he was a revolutionary and his atelier quickly became popular with an emerging array of young talent. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Mary Cassat (1844-1926) and most notably, Édouard Manet (1832-1883) were enthusiastically trained by him.

He repeatedly instructed his students to unshackle themselves from the old masters and by doing so, unleash their own personality into their work.

“There are not two ways of painting, there is but one, which has always been employed by those who understand the art. Knowing how to paint and to use one’s colours rightly, has not any connection with originality. This originality consists in properly expressing your own impressions.“

As you can imagine, Couture’s liberal attitude towards expression in art was met with much joy by his eager students who sought to create works that spoke to a modern audience. Times were changing - particularly in France - and young artists were keen to record it.

Yet, perhaps Couture didn’t realise just how far some of his students were prepared to go. As by encouraging them to throw caution to the wind, he prised open a Pandora’s Box that would never again be closed.

For instance, in 1859, Manet painted The Absinthe Drinker - a dark full-length portrait of an alcoholic rag-picker named Collardet. With broad liberal brushwork and plenty of expression, the figure staggers out of the gloom. It was the first painting that he submitted to the Salon for inclusion and it was rejected wholeheartedly. It was cruelly met with derision by the establishment who considered the subject to be crass and unworthy of an artist’s focus.

Édouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker (c.1859)

Perhaps seeking a kinder ear, he asked his old master, Thomas Couture, for his opinion - but sadly he received a similar critique.

“An absinthe drinker! And they paint abominations like that! My poor friend, you are the absinthe drinker. It is you who have lost your moral sense.”


How many of us have found ourselves in a similar position to Thomas Couture? Torn between worlds - clinging to a belief from the past yet pulled towards an inevitable future? It seems that he was truly a stepping stone - one of several conduits that spurred on a new generation that ultimately outgrew him.

This pull from both sides, left him static with his own work - unable to move in either direction. He sought to overcome the past but he failed to truly embrace the future. As a result, two of his masterpieces were left unfinished - The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792 and Baptismal Ceremony of the Imperial Prince.

In 1879, just months before his death, he published a guide on painting named ‘Conversations on Art Methods’. The preface is particularly profound and explains:

“I have often mistaken the way, sometimes entirely lost myself; but there has come to me from these failures great results, great light. I come out from them more robust, torn to pieces, it is true, but no less valiant.“

Lessons on Life

Thomas Couture’s story reminds us that history favours those who truly commit to the path they seek. The burdens of the past are tricks of the mind that should be respected but overcome. Manet’s contribution to modern art is widely appreciated - he embraced the endeavours of his heart while respectfully interpreting the teachings of the past.

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