Thomas Couture: A Difficult Master

"[I] worked for Couture for over a month. I did for him in his home door tops,
firescreens and various other restorations, then he let me go without a penny."

Deathbed sketch of the 'Great French Painter' Thomas Couture by Juglaris

Thomas Couture, the famed painter of historical scenes, was sufficiently impressed by Juglaris to hire him for mural and decorative work at his home in Villiers-le-Bel near Paris. But the relationship with Couture proved awkward and testy. Instead of paying him, Couture critiqued and offered advice for the work Juglaris was doing for him in his own home. Once again Juglaris felt exploited. On the positive side, however, Juglaris won something valuable in return for his donated labor--the right to call himself Couture’s pupil, a fact Couture himself took pains to point out.

'Trees', a landscape painting by JuglarisCouture's home at Villiers-le-Bel, France where Juglaris completed decorative workAs part of Couture’s circle, Juglaris enjoyed another benefit: he was exposed to many of the artist’s American disciples, including Francis Millet, John Ward Dunsmore, and Ernest Longfellow, the son of the American poet. After Couture died on March 30, 1879, Juglaris arrived the very next day to make a final portrait as a tribute to his teacher. That deathbed sketch was later published in the United States, illustrating a biographical article on the famous French master.

Juglaris furthered his training in the fine arts by spending time with the artists who gathered during the summer outside Paris in the village of Barbizon, near the Forest of Fontainebleau. Juglaris did not feel especially called to the landscape painting favored by Barbizon artists. Nevertheless, in the handful of landscape paintings he executed, then and later, he adopted the Barbizon practice of painting outdoors en plein air, working directly from nature. 

Remaining selective about new trends in art, Juglaris also followed his own muse in the face of the Impressionist Movement that was already making its presence felt in Paris.  He largely avoided the influence and techniques of Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and others which were creating a stir.  However, he did appropriate for some of his portraits and landscapes the “macchie” technique (literally patches of light and shadow) of the Macchiaioli Movement of Northern Italy, which today is regarded as an often-overlooked precursor to Impressionism.

Thomas Couture – ‘Great French Painter’
Thomas Couture, Tommaso Juglaris’s teacher, was one of France’s leading nineteenth-century painters.  Born in northern France, Couture was raised and educated in Paris.  Initially, he studied at the Ecole des Arts and Metiers, the nation’s leading engineering and industrial arts school.  But he subsequently enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts to study painting.  Despite his obvious 'Romans of the Decadence' by Thomas Couturetalent, Couture was passed over six times for the Prix de Rome before finally receiving the prestigious student scholarship.  Couture blamed the judges from the Ecole des Beaux Arts for the slight and thereafter took issue with school’s strict academic instruction.  In the career that ensued, Couture was part of the Juste Milieu, a group of French artists trying to stake a middle ground, fusing classicism and romanticism and reconciling traditional painterly techniques with more modern impulses.  Fond of portraiture but also concentrating on historical and genre paintings, Couture’s works were remarkable for both their soft coloring and sharp use of tonal contrasts.   There was a naturalism in his presentation of any subject that did not preclude theatricality and dramatic effect.  All this was evident in Couture’s most famous painting, Romans of the Decadence, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1847.  The painting created a sensation, in large part because it was rightly seen as a veiled allegorical critique of the so-called “July Monarchy” under King Louis Phillippe who was soon to be deposed.

After his success at the Paris Salon, Couture opened his own art school in his atelier or studio, vowing to train France’s best Self-portrait by Thomas Couturehistory painters.  He summarized his own ideas on art in a book published in 1867 as Methode et Entretiens D’Atelier (Method and Workshop Interviews).  In the year of his death, it was translated into English and published as Conversations on Art Methods (1879).  Controversy over three public mural commissions, plus his declared political views, alienated many of his original followers.  Yet his stature among American artists studying in Paris continued to grow.  Ultimately, he not only counted among his students the Frenchmen Edoard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes but also the American artists William Morris Hunt, John LaFarge, Ernest Longfellow, John Ward Dunsmore, and Maria Oakey Dewing. 

In 1875 Tommaso Juglaris joined a multinational artists’ colony gathered at Villiers-le-Bel, eager to imbibe 'Two Soldiers' by Thomas CoutureCouture’s painting philosophy and techniques.  He stayed for several consecutive months.  It was during this period that Couture recruited him for the decorative project at his large country home.  Although Juglaris was keenly disappointed not to be paid as anticipated, Couture subsequently presented him with the gift of his two volume Methode et Entretiens, complete with a personally inscribed handwritten dedication.  It was a token of intimacy with the “Grand Peinture Francais” (Great French Painter) that Juglaris cherished.

In Villiers-le-Bel Juglaris boarded at the Hotel Garnier along with seven other Italian artists.  However, Juglaris was attracted to the Americans who were studying at Couture’s feet.  Like many of them, Juglaris’s own sense of color was influenced by Couture.  During Juglaris’s later American stay, his association and identification with Couture proved to be an invaluable credential as a painter, muralist, and teacher.