Us during the Decadence

DECEMBER 1 ― The Musée d’Orsay sits by the Seine in Paris. On one of the museum walls is hung a large painting by Thomas Couture. Named Romans during the Decadence, the work demands anybody passing by it to stop, decipher and contemplate Couture’s message for a minute or two.

Decadence has statues representing the better spirit of the Roman Empire standing tall and looking down disapprovingly on contemporary Roman elites who are engaging in debauchery of various kinds.

Among the living there is a boy resting at the base of a status being utterly disinterested in the immorality of his older peers. On the opposite side, two travellers stand shocked discovering the state of the Romans.

The Empire was on the decline and Couture captured the idea thoroughly. The painter used sex and wine to represent vices of the world but to me as a Malaysian, the symbols signify something bigger than such simple human desires. I feel instead it represents corruption at its widest meaning, something relevant everywhere for all times.

Painted in 1847, Couture was not really thinking about the Romans. He wanted to depict the moral bankruptcy of another society he belonged to, the French. He was utterly critical of the depravity of the ruling class then.

He had the right to do so. France of the 1840s was corrupt to the bones.

At the centre of it all were the July Monarchy and its supporters. Among the worst of scandals was a corruption case involving the government’s minister Jean-Baptise Teste, and a military-businessman Amédée Despans-Cubière.

Desirous of a business concession, Despans-Cubière bribed Teste with ninety-four thousand francs to secure the necessary contract. Both became best friends.

They were caught eventually. Despans-Cubière was allowed to retire from the military. Teste meanwhile was imprisoned in Prison du Luxembourg. Yet, the prison was more a palace than anything else. Today, it is called the Palais de Luxembourg and houses the French Senate.

Concurrent to the grand corruption case but happening separately was a murder case involving a nobleman. Charles de Choiseul-Praslin was thought to have murdered his wife.

The scandal captured the wild imagination of the French masses already unhappy with the overly luxurious life of the upper class. During his trial, he committed suicide but in a society where trust was thin, rumours had it the suicide was faked in order to save the accused. The chattering masses were convinced the authorities had allowed him to leave France for England.

The two cases came to a head in 1847 but it was only the last among many the government experienced throughout its reign. But the people finally had enough. A year later, the February Revolution erupted and ended the monarchy.

From the corrupt ashes rose the Second French Republic .

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.