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 Roman spirit standing tall and looking down disapprovingly on contemporary Roman elites engaging in debauchery of various kinds.
Among the living there is a boy being utterly disinterested in the immorality of his older peers. On the opposite side, two travelers 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 the symbols signify something bigger than excessive human pleasure. Truly, it represents corruption at its widest meaning, something relevant everywhere for all times.
Painted in 1847, Couture was not thinking about the Romans. Far from it, he wanted to depict the moral bankruptcy of another society, one which 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 a government 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.
The secret ties went on for years but 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.
Separate but concurrent to the grand corruption 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. Unable to withstand pressure from the trial, he committed suicide.
Yet, in a society where trust was thin, rumors had it the suicide was faked 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.