Lot 405
  • 405

THOMAS COUTURE | Two Sisters (Study for "The Promises" in The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792)

60,000 - 80,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Thomas Couture
  • Two Sisters (Study for "The Promises" in The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792)
  • signed T.C. (center right) 
  • oil on canvas 
  • 43 by 32 1/8 in.
  • 109.2 by 81.6 cm


John Stevens Melcher (by 1940)
Knoedler & Co., New York (acquired from the above) 
Wildenstein & Co., New York (by 1942) 
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (and sold, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, November 12, 1970, lot 29, illustrated) 
Ira Spanierman, New York
Acquired from the above


Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Development of Impressionism, January 12-February 28, 1940, no. 12 (lent by Knoedler & Co., New York, as Two Peasant Girls
Minneapolis, Institute of Arts, Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, November 4, 1965-January 2, 1966 (lent by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis) 
University of Maryland Art Gallery, Thomas Couture: Paintings and Drawings in American Collections, February 5-March 15, 1970, no. 36 (lent by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis)
Springfield, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts; The Detroit Institute of Arts; Williamstown, Massachusetts, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Enrollment of the Volunteers: Thomas Couture and the Painting of History, April 13-November 2, 1980 (lent by the present owner) 


Jerome Willard Howe, Jr., "Thomas Couture: His Career and Artistic Development," Unpublished Master's thesis, University of Chicago, 1951, n.p., no. 135 
Albert Boime, "Thomas Couture and the Evolution of Painting in Nineteenth-Century France," The Art Bulletin, New York, March 1969, vol. 51, no. 1, p. 49 


This painting has an old lining and the colors appear fresh. Under UV: areas of inpainting fluoresce in the hair of the right figure, and in finely dappled areas of the left figure's forehead and neck and the right figure's chest. There is reinforcement in the skirt of the figure at left and in the area below the right figure's hand. A horizontal line of repair fluoresces along the extreme lower edge and is somewhat visible to the naked eye.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

In 1847, Thomas Couture established himself as one of France’s most important and forward-thinking artists through the exhibition of his monumental canvas, Romains de la décadence (1847, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), accompanied by two lines from the Roman poet Juvenal, (c. 55-c.140 AD): "Crueler than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world." Salon viewers rightly interpreted this painting as a thinly veiled critique of French society, a Realist allegory critical of the loss of Democratic values since the French Revolution and the decline of French culture under the July Monarchy. By couching a contemporary narrative in the grandest tradition of history painting, Couture was challenging long-held conventions of Academic art.In the mid-nineteenth century, the world was braving enormous social and political upheaval. The industrial revolution and development of railroads was transforming the landscape irreversibly and propelling new ideas in support of the working class (The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848). When the Revolution of 1848 overthrew the Orléans Monarchy and established the French Second Republic, it is not surprising that the new government turned to Couture to immortalize the moment in paint. He was enormously popular and regarded as one of the country’s greatest artists, heir to Antoine Gros (his former teacher) and Theodore Géricault, and his politics aligned with the new regime. Commissioned to prepare a grand history painting intended to emphasize the relationship between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Second Republic, Couture decided to paint a tribute to the unification of social classes in defense of the country through The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792 (1848-1851, Musée Départmental de l’Oise, Beauvais).

Couture’s enthusiasm is reflected in the innumerable studies and compositional sketches that were made in preparation for the canvas. Unlike the exclusively classical figures in Romains de la décadence, these sketches show that Couture experimented with an anachronistic cast that borrows classical motifs, allegorical figures, eighteenth century soldiers and contemporary workers. The most complete preparatory sketch and the one that he identified as his preferred composition for the final painting is The Enrollment (1848, Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, fig. 1)(Boime, p. 197). At the very center of this composition, astride a cannon hauled by workers, sits the allegorical figure of "Liberty", and to her left are two young girls, referred to as "The Promises" – a figure group emblematic of optimism for the future.

The present work is the second study for "The Promises", and it is likely that Couture’s daughters were chosen as models (a portrait of his father is also included in the Springfield sketch). The girl at right is likely his eldest daughter, Berthe, who is also seen in his painting Autumn (1848, The Wadsworth Atheneum). The title suggests that she is joined by her sister, who can also be seen in the oil sketch for the related Head of Liberty (circa 1848, Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts). In planning the final composition, Couture mapped a complete inventory of these highly finished figure studies, many of which are now in the collection of The Musée d’Orsay, and which shows the present work in outline.

In the months following the commission, however, the political landscape of France shifted quickly and dramatically. With Louis Napoleon’s election to the presidency in December 1848, and the coup d’état in which he declared himself Emperor and transformed the Second Republic into the Second Empire in 1851, the aspirations of the revolutionaries were shattered. As a consequence, the significance of Couture’s The Enrollment of the Volunteers of 1792 was lost, and the final painting was completely reworked with broad passages left unfinished. Most notably, and perhaps nihilistically, the figures of "Victory" and "The Promises" remain completely omitted.