Portrait of Mme. Sabatier, n.d.Thomas Couture (French, 1815-1879)
Most famous for his grand history painting The Romans of the Decadence, Thomas Couture was brilliant but combative. Born in Senlis, he studied in Paris at the École des Arts et Métiers before entering the École des Beaux-Arts. There he studied under Antoine-Jean Gros and Paul Delaroche. Couture’s repeated failure to secure the Prix de Rome only fostered his rebellion against the French artistic establishment. His works of the 1840s brought him notoriety more than fame for their audacious subjects, culminating in the Salon of 1847 with The Romans of the Decadence, which, while keeping with the conventions and technique of the highest academic tradition, satirized contemporary French society.
With the accession of Napoleon III, Couture gained commissions from the government, many of which remained unfinished, however, because of his difficult personality. From 1859, the artist lived in Senlis, where he worked for French and foreign private patrons, but even in these works he never quite erased his satiric edge. The teacher of Edouard Manet and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Couture kept an independent atelier in the years following 1847 where he transmitted his virtuoso technique with little of the formal rigor of the academies.
The sitter for this graceful portrait may be Apollonie Sabatier, whom Couture would have known as the model for Auguste Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Snake, a sculpture that scandalized the Salon in the same year as Romans of the Decadence. If so, little of her colorful life as a courtesan and hostess is revealed. The artist captures her in a pensive moment, eyes cast down, and subtly models the planes of her face with the crayon. The only touch of white is the glint from her earring, which gives the entire portrait its three-dimensionality.