Americans of the Decadence
Forthcoming: 2024 - 2028, Austin, Texas.
Americans of the Decadence is a re-thinking and re-making of the painting Romans of the Decadence (Les Romains de la Décadence, 15′ 6″ x 25′ 4″, oil paint) made by the French artist Thomas Couture, first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1847, a year before the 1848 Revolution which toppled the July Monarchy which now belongs to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Americans of the Decadence will measure 16' 6" x 50' 8", twice the length with twice the number of figures.
"I have begun early research and sketching, and will be in full production of the hand-embroidered work beginning in 2024, with a completion goal of 2028. I have a long history with the original painting by Couture. In my first encounter with the work in 2015 in a book I became fascinated with the idea of an artist attempting to present such a strong critique of his day using a time prior than his own and in such a large-scale historical painting format. I had the privilege of making a trip to Paris specifically to see the painting at the Musée d'Orsay in 2016, and this began my interest in recreating this artwork. It was everything and more than I had imaged, a grand and sweeping gesture, heroically gutsy and important, and yet it has this odd air of being forgotten, overlooked, not taken to heart, as empires marched onwards after its creation, repeating the same mistakes; I am speaking specifically of the American empire. Additionally, the size of the painting, in person, felt off putting, as if Couture knew it was too much, like he was hiding a message that he felt might be too dangerous to make directly about the current powers that be, and yet he knew that with these almost absurd proportions that the viewer would be forced into a deeper read. I began to understand Romans of the Decadence as a message across the ages, a dire warning from one era of empire to future era's of empire about the lies built into our ideas about progress. It said to me very clearly and very loudly that all future generations should heed this warning lest they fall into the same trap of privilege and malaise that Couture insisting we consider with this massive work of art. He could have not been louder or clearer, and all I could wonder is, how is it that we don't talk about this painting more? How is it that it feels like somewhat of a marginal artwork in the history of art? Why is this not taught in every school, in every art and history and sociology class? I had never heard of this painting after having attended four years of undergraduate school at UC Berkeley studying history and philosophy and art. I had never once heard this painting discussed in three years of my MFA program at UT Austin which had a strong art history requirement built into the curriculum. I knew that I had to bring this work to life in the present, and that was when my journey with this artwork began in true, because I knew, and I know even more clearly now that Couture's warning was spot on; we haven't evolved at all beyond the time of this painting; today we are just as mired in our own decadence; drunk with malaise, a culture drowning in mindless consumerism and self-fascination, and at such a great cost to ourselves and the world. So, this has become my purpose and mission with recreating this artwork; I want to present a critical and sober view of American decadence today, so that we may hopefully see ourselves and move forward from it. This has always been a recurring theme in my work: the idea of complicity, of participation, of asking how much of the blame for any of our social ills can be placed on the system and how much can be placed on us, and where is that line exactly, if it even truly exists?" - Mateo Gutiérrez, 2023
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From Google Arts & Culture:
"It took Thomas Couture three years to complete The Romans of the Decadence the proportions of which betray grand artistic ambitions. He wanted to give fresh impetus to French painting and to do so referred, rather conventionally, to the masters of ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the Flemish school. The work is a history painting, regarded as the noblest genre during the 19th century: it therefore had to represent human behavior and convey a moral message. This was explained by Couture himself, who quoted two lines from the Roman poet Juvenal, (c. 55-c.140 AD) in the catalog for the 1847 Salon where the painting was exhibited: "Crueler than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world". In the center of the painting, Couture has placed a group of debauched revelers, exhausted and disillusioned or still drinking and dancing. In the foreground are three men who are not taking part in the drunken revels: on the left, a melancholic boy sitting on a column and on the right two foreign visitors casting a disapproving eye over the scene. The antique statues looming above the group also seem to be condemning the orgy. Apart from illustrating an ancient text, Couture was alluding to French society of his time. A Jacobin, Republican and anticlerical, he criticized the moral decadence of France under the July monarchy, the ruling class of which had been discredited by a series of scandals. This painting is therefore a "realist allegory", and the art critics of 1847 were quick to see in these Romans "The French of the Decadence".