by Roderick Conway Morris

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Louvre, Paris
View of the Grande Galerie by Hubert Robert, 1796

Hubert Robert and the Beautiful Ravages of Time

By Roderick Conway Morris
PARIS 27 April 2016


The 18th-century French painter Hubert Robert was so closely identified with images of majestic architectural decay that he acquired the nickname 'Robert des Ruines.'

His output was prodigious, his career long and his popularity immense. As his close friend and fellow artist élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun wrote of him: 'He had a natural wit, was highly cultivated but devoid of pedantry; and the inexhaustible gaiety of his character made him the most agreeable man you could hope to meet in society.'

Although Robert was a central figure in the revitalization of French art in the mid-18th century, his fame suffered a decline. The last major retrospective devoted to him was in 1933 at the Orangerie in Paris.

He is now the subject of a superb exhibition at the Louvre of over 140 of his works: 'Robert Hubert: A Visionary Artist.' Curated by Guillaume Faroult, it continues here until May 30 and then travels on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington (June 26 to Oct. 2).

The show opens with Vigée Le Brun's virtuoso portrait of Robert in romantic mode, casually dressed, hair unkempt, palette and brushes in hand, gazing intently into the distance. It was painted in 1788, the year before the French Revolution, when Robert was in his mid-50s. By then he was one of France's most celebrated and best-paid artists and had a clientèle that included Catherine the Great and the Russian aristocracy.

Born to servants in the household of the Marquis de Stainville, he benefited from an excellent classical education and some art training before joining the entourage of the Comte de Stainville, the marquis's eldest son, when he was appointed ambassador to the Holy See in 1754. In Italy, Robert developed a passion for ancient ruins that was nurtured by the works of the great Italian architectural artists Giovanni Paolo Pannini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and the draughtsman and antiquary Charles Louis Clérisseau.

Robert was not a recipient of the Prix de Rome — normally the prerequisite for entry to Rome's Académie de France — but, thanks to the intervention of his powerful patrons, he was nonetheless admitted to follow the courses there. During the 11 years he spent in the city, he produced a wealth of paintings, drawings and etchings, of ancient monuments, gardens and landscapes, some of the finest of which constitute the first 'Rome' section of this show.

Between 1758 and 1761 Robert struck up a close friendship with a fellow pensionnaire at the Académie, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. As a series of juxtapositions of works by the two artists demonstrates, they often painted together, each influencing the other. Fragonard's eye for picturesque scenes of daily life in Rome — especially featuring laundresses and young female water-carriers — encouraged Robert to introduce such genre vignettes into even his grandest paintings of monuments, bringing to them an element of vivacity and humor.

Both Robert and Fragonard were pioneers of a new bravura style, characterized by looser brush strokes and often thicker impastos, conveying a self-assured insouciance that appealed to the upper echelons of society. 'A man of wit and taste who paints, not a painter,' as he was described by an anonymous female commentator on the Salon of 1785, Robert — according to Vigée Le Brun — 'could paint a picture as quickly as write a letter.'

On returning to Paris in 1766, Robert was admitted to the Académie Royale, which allowed him to exhibit in the Salon for the first time the following year. The works included a striking capriccio, 'The Port of Rome, Adorned with Various Architectural Monuments Ancient and Modern' (on show here), in which the artist boldly relocated the Pantheon to Ripetta on the banks of the Tiber.

Robert's images evoked powerful existential emotions in the philosopher Denis Diderot, in whom he found an early champion. Reviewing the 1767 Salon, Diderot wrote: 'These ruins inspire in me grand ideas. Everything comes to nothing. Everything passes. Nothing in the world endures. Only Time remains.' He described their ultimate effect as being a sensation of 'sweet melancholy.'

In the years that followed, Robert took his imaginative transformations of real scenes to new heights, producing enormous canvases, such as those displayed in a section entitled 'The Sublime and 'Dreadful Beauty.' ' These include 'Landscape with Cascade Inspired by Tivoli' and 'The Spring of the Fontaine de Vaucluse,' with their soaring cliffs, dizzying crags and tumultuous waterfalls and rapids, and apocalyptic visions of Rome ablaze against inky black skies.

Robert had the opportunity to make some of his landscapes reality when, in 1778, he was appointed Designer of Gardens to the king of France. He devised new layouts and architectural features for the grounds of the royal residences at Versailles and Rambouillet (where he also designed furniture and porcelain for the dairy) and for the country parks of other ancien régime grandees.

The artist produced relatively few pictures of his native city, exhibiting at the Salon between 1767 and 1798 barely a dozen canvases on this subject. But as the 'Paris' section of the show reveals, this poet of the ravages of time produced some unforgettable images of contemporary buildings gutted by conflagrations and of the transformations of the city wrought by the Revolution and modernization. Notable among these are 'The Interior of the Hall of the Opera the Day after the Fire,' 'The Bastille during the First Days of its Demolition,' 'The Demolition of Houses on the Pont Notre-Dame' and 'The Demolition of Houses on the Pont-au-Change.'

In October 1793, as the Terror took hold, Robert was incarcerated at Sainte-Pélagie and then Saint-Lazare, where he formed part of an improvised salon, whose ranks of artists, intellectuals and aristocrats were depleted as they were taken away to be guillotined. Three of his companions, the poets André Chenier and Antoine Roucher and the noblewoman the Princesse de Monaco were executed on the eve of the fall of Robespierre, but Robert survived. While imprisoned, he managed to produce more than 50 paintings and scores of sketches of day-to-day prison life. A selection of these on display here, among them pastoral scenes painted on dinner plates, are some of the most vivid and unusual works of his career.

Robert had been granted a studio and living quarters at the Louvre in the late 1770s. He was involved in plans to create an ambitious new 'Grande Galerie' there, but the project was postponed and he was reduced to the humbler task of cataloguing the king's pictures. After his release from prison, he began working again on architectural schemes for the gallery, but, as before, his proposals remained on paper. In the process, however, he created a series of intriguing paintings, which close the exhibition. These include a remarkable pair: 'Project for the Transformation of the Grand Galerie' and the futuristic 'View of the Grande Galerie in Ruins' of 1796.

Robert's contemporaries testified to his almost superhuman energy, agility, and capacity for work and for socializing, which did not desert him in his later years. A eulogy delivered two weeks after his sudden demise in April 1808 described how 'death surprised him at his easel, and caused the palette to fall from his hand even as he was creating another picture.'

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023