Thomas Couture followed the path of numerous talented artists born to modest, provincial backgrounds in the nineteenth century. He was born in Senlis in 1815, but his shoemaker father moved the family to Paris in 1826. At the age of fourteen, Couture studied for one year (1829) at the industrial arts school (École des Arts et Métiers) and then entered the studio of the academic history painter Gros (q.v.) the following year and then the state-sponsored École des Beaux-Arts (1831). Failing the prestigious Prix de Rome competition at the École six times, Couture turned to the official exhibitions, the Salons, to make his career. He made his name in 1847 with the monumental historical genre painting The Romans of the Decadence (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), which garnered great acclaim. More conservative critics admired Couture for having revived the flagging genre of history painting through a harmonious composition of numerous figures in various natural poses set within a grandiose architectural setting; the depicted nudity and wanton behavior were acceptable because they served as indications of the physical and moral decline of ancient Rome. More progres-sive commentators admired the textural, luminous quality achieved through Couture's innovative technique, in which he retained aspects of the ébauche, or preliminary phase of working up a final canvas, and exploited the ground color, letting it flicker up through darker tones or pulling drier, brighter paint over it. Government commissions (The Enroll-ment of the Volunteers of 1792, The Baptism of the Prince Imperial, and religious mural paintings in the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris) followed from the late 1840s through the 1850s, spanning the political changes from the Second Republic to the Second Empire. But Couture never completed the first two commissions, while the third met with mixed criticism. Troubled by his own inability to finish projects as well as the unfavorable reception of his murals, Couture moved away from Paris in 1860, first to his hometown of Senlis, then to Villiers-le-Bel, where he increasingly distanced himself from the art scene in Paris but continued to teach and advise artists who came to him.
Shortly after his 1847 success, Couture opened an independent atelier meant to challenge the École in producing the best new history painters. He published a book on his ideas and working methods, Méthode et entretiens d'atelier (Paris, 1867), in which he encouraged the use of the ébauche and gave specific "recipes" for certain tonal effects. In making explicit his technique and process, Couture thumbed his nose at the academic establishment, which, until 1863, did not actually teach painting and sculpture in the École curriculum and had consistently mystified the process of artistic education in order to maintain control over it. Among his students were Manet (q.v.), Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880), and many Americans, male and female. For this reason, a number of small works, some of which served as teaching exercises, found their way into American collections. These students, in turn, directed fellow American collectors to Couture, who was able to sustain his later career through such private patronage. He died in 1879 at Villiers-le-Bel. Couture's fiery temperament and periods of self-doubt and sluggishness were significant factors in his rocky career. Perhaps he put it best, responding to an editor's request for an autobiography in 1856: "Biography is the exaltation of personality, and personality is the scourge of our time."1