Thomas Couture-E

Senlis, December 21th 1815 – March 30th 1879, Villiers-le-Bel

In 1826, when Thomas Couture was 11 years old, his family moved in Paris. He studied first at the « Ecole des Arts et Métiers » then at the Beaux-Arts school of Paris. In 1830, he enrolled into the workshop of Antoine Gros (1771-1835). Being no self-assured, he secretely drawn a portrait of his master who sentenced him like this: “But, my little friend, you are painting like an old academician”. He is, for sure, the most important portraits maker of the nineteenth Century.
Thomas Couture moved to the worshop of Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). He was denied several time for the Prix de Rome contest but, finally, got a second price in 1837.
Thomas Couture exhibited at the Salon de Paris and has been awarded a medal in 1847 for “Les Romains de la decadence” (the Romans of the decadence time). On November 11th 1848, he was awarded “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur” official medal.

Following his success, Thomas Couture opened an independent school, competing with the Beaux-Arts School of Paris, from where emerged the best talented painters of all times.
Along his career, he groomed famous artists, like Edmond Eugene Valton (1836-1910), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) or Edouard Manet (1832-1883) who, the first day there, said “I don’t know why I’m here. When I arrive at the workshop, I feel like entering into a grave”. Despite a lot of conflicts between them, Manet stayed with his teacher for more than six and half years.
His fame became known in The United States as well and he exhibited in several American cities.
At the end of 1840, he got official orders for mural paintings of some church. In 1851, Thomas Couture started to decorate the chapel of the Virgin Mary of the Paris Saint Eustache church inaugurated in 1856. He never achieved the two first orders and the third one had no success. He has been named the Official painter of the Napoleon III Emperor court but is disappointed by the regime, hoping for more glory and honors. In 1857, he is awarded a gold medal for a wall -paper design showing a landscape. At that time, they were very different to the today’s wall-papers.

In 1860, being annoyed by the rejection of his mural paintings, Thomas Couture leaved Paris and moved to Senlis (further North), carrying on with teaching. He published “Méthode et entretiens d’atelier” (Methodology and maintenance of a workshop), a book explaining his understanding of art and its technicality. It is nothing else than a criticism of the academic teaching.

Thomas Couture liked dark colors. Almost all of his models posed with black, brown or grey costumes, which allowed him to demonstrate his colors mastering. The painting “Le portrait de la baronne d’Astier de la Vigerie” (The Portrait of the Baroness d’Astier de la Vigerie), recently acquired by the Senlis museum, is the best example of it.

In July 8th 1869, he buys for 137500 F a large property of 3.4 hectares in Villiers-le-Bel. At that time, he began to have relationships with the Colony of painters living in the next village of Ecouen.

In 1872, affected by some events of the 1870 war, Thomas Couture is really depressed. He does not attract crowds anymore. Painting style has changes and he said: “Battle against realism is lost. Impressionism and symbolism are rising”.
An editor suggested Thomas Couture to write his autobiography. He answered: “Biography is exaltation of the personality and personality is the plague of our time”.

Thomas Couture died in Villiers-le-Bel, in his very large house called “le château” (the castle). He is buried in the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery of Paris. His tombstone has been decorated by the sculptor Louis Ernest Barrias (1841-1905).


For further information, please read the book “L’Ecole d’Ecouen, une colonie de peintres au XIXe siècle” (bilingual French-English).