Couture’s The Romans of the Decadence and the Unmooring of Rome’s Decline

Basil Dufallo (University of Michigan)

This paper argues that Thomas Couture’s well-known 1847 painting, Les Romains de la Décadence (“The Romans of the Decadence”) deploys a powerful aesthetics of disorientation with roots in classical Latin literature. As a self-conscious reception of Juvenal’s Satire 6, quoted by Couture himself in the catalogue of the Paris Salon, the painting profits from its affiliations with a subversive satiric voice allowing for pleasure in the portrayal of error and disgust. But what is more, by focusing on the “impoverished aesthetics” of both painting and poem, we see that while ostensibly castigating the morals of a particular historical period in universal terms, both text and image achieve important effects by staging a variety of queer subject positions unmoored from conventional notions of temporality and identity. The subsequent reception of the painting as a recurring emblem of decadence is especially intriguing in this regard.