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Gallery Text

More savage than war, luxury burdened (Rome)

and avenged the conquered world.

— Juvenal, Satire 6

A trope of Roman literature was to lament the decay of moral standards, comparing the noble past with the debauched present, often using the excesses of banqueting to illustrate the point. Inspired by the first-to-second-century CE satirist Juvenal, Couture contrasted the orgy in the foreground with the dignified sculptures in the background as an allegory for the degeneration of his own time. Based on real sculptures of famous Romans, the statues look scornfully down on the proceedings, their heroic nudity contrasting with that of the revelers, which is anything but. Some of the celebrants recline, as was common at Roman dinner parties; others mirror the statues’ poses or offer toasts to them. Symbols of the wine god Bacchus in the scene connect the proceedings to wild Bacchanalia, while the two philosophers at the right convey the disapproval of civilized society.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Thomas Couture, French (Senlis (Oise) 1815 - 1879 Villiers-le-Bel)
Romans of the Decadence
Other Titles
Original Language Title: Romains de la Decadence
Alternate Title: The Roman Festival
Work Type
Persistent Link
Level 3, Room 3700, Ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Art, Roman Art
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Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
sight: 59.37 x 91.12 cm (23 3/8 x 35 7/8 in.)
framed: 78 x 110 cm (30 11/16 x 43 5/16 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: l.l. (on base of column): T. C.
  • inscription: Conservation file notes inscription on back: Plus cruel que la guerre le vice s'est abbatu sur Rome et venge le univers vaincu/"Sa vior armis Luxuria incubit, victum qui [il?] ciscitur orbeum" Juvenal Sat VI.
[Braxton Art Company, New York], sold; to Grenville Lindall Winthrop, New York, 1941, bequest; to Fogg Art Museum, 1943
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

Jean Joseph Seznec, "The Romans of the Decadence and their Historical Significance", Gazette des Beaux-Arts (October 1943), XXIV, pp. 221-232, p. 222, repr. p. 223 as fig. 1 and p. 229 as fig. 4 (detail)

Albert Boime, Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision, brochure, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT and London, England, 1980)

Edgar Peters Bowron, European Paintings Before 1900 in the Fogg Art Museum: A Summary Catalogue including Paintings in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p. 103; repr. as no. 288

Chikashi Kitazaki and Mina Oya, ed., Between Reality and Dreams: Nineteenth Century British and French Art from the Winthrop Collection of the Fogg Art Museum, exh. cat., National Museum of Western Art (Ueno, 2002), p. 31, repr. as fig. 23

Stephan Wolohojian, ed., A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press (U.S.) (New York, 2003), repr. in b/w p. 36, as fig. 38

Stephan Wolohojian, Ingres, Burne-Jones, Whistler, Renoir... La Collection Grenville L. Winthrop, exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and Réunion des Musées Nationaux (Paris, France, 2003), repr. in b/w p. 43, as fig. 37

Old Master & Early British Drawings & Watercolors, auct. cat., Christie's, New York (New York, January 31, 2013), p. 154

Tour de Force: William Bouguereau's "La Jeunesse de Bacchus", auct. cat., Sotheby's, New York (New York, May 14, 2019), p. 47, repr. as fig. 30

Exhibition History

Master Paintings from the Fogg Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/13/1977 - 08/31/1977

For Students of Art and Lovers of Beauty: Highlights from the Collection of Grenville L. Winthrop, Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/16/2004

32Q: 3700 Roman, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

Google Art Project

Related Works

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