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A Rage for Ruins

The 18th-century French painter Hubert Robert catered to the aristocracy’s fascination with the ancient world and the eroding effects of time, with works which continue to astonish.

Hubert Robert, Le Panthéon avec le port de Ripetta, Salon of 1767

Hubert Robert, Le Panthéon avec le port de Ripetta, Salon of 1767, oil on canvas, framed: 141.5 x 168.5 x 7.5 cm (56 x 66 x 3 in.) unframed: 119 x 145 cm (47 x 57 in.).

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If ever there was a social butterfly at the Royal Academy in France, it was Hubert Robert. During his artistic domination in and around Paris during the second half of the 18th century, Robert cultivated countless relationships with a veritable Who’s Who of ancien-régime Paris, floating through the city’s circles of intellectuals (particularly members of the fashionable Republic of Arts and Letters), antiquarians, and amateurs, as well as fully realizing his lofty aspirations as a painter of architecture, landscape, and antiquities.

His friend and eventual colleague at the Royal Academy, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun, wrote extensively not only of his talent but also of his charms, which were many. Two oft-quoted passages from her Souvenirs are worth repeating here: Robert “excelled above all at depicting ruins … It was fashionable and a great luxury to have one’s salon painted by Robert.” She went on to write that he also “cut the best figure in society, of which he was moreover very fond. Loving all pleasures, without omitting those of the table, he was generally sought out, and I doubt that he dined at home more than three times a year. Plays, balls, dinners, concerts, visits to country houses, nothing was declined by him, for all the time he did not employ working, he spent in amusements.”

Realizing his ambitions and climbing France’s social ladder were made possible no doubt thanks to his innate skill as an artist and draughtsman. The canvases of which Vigée Lebrun spoke, and which were Robert’s trademark for nearly 50 years, were known as capricci, a term denoting the decorative convention for depicting picturesque architectural ruins that had developed in baroque Rome and reached its apex among the Italian painters with Giovanni Paolo Panini, for whose work Robert felt a deep affinity. Robert’s charisma, coupled with his artistic ingenuity and his ability to create those arresting and novel capricci for which he was—and still is—amply praised, made for an ideal combination and brought him the praise for which he had hoped.

Robert was considered one of the most important painters by patrons, critics, and artists alike in the 18th century and was acclaimed well into the Belle Époque. Paeans to him peppered the writings of some of France’s most important literary figures, from Denis Diderot—who gave him the nickname “Robert of the Ruins”—to Edmond de Goncourt and Marcel Proust more than a century later. But the 20th century has been less kind to him, and more than 80 years have passed since he was the subject of a major retrospective. This year’s exhibition, “Hubert Robert, 1733–1808,” serves to remedy that. The show first graced the walls of the Louvre, the very institution where Robert himself was installed with his own studio and apartments in 1779, and is currently on view across the Atlantic at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (through October 2).

The son of the valet and the chambermaid of the Marquis de Stainville, Hubert Robert received the privilege of a trusting patron, the foundation of a master’s early education since the Renaissance (as in the legendarily celebrated cases of Leonardo and Francis I and Michelangelo and Lorenzo de’ Medici), even while in his youngest, formative years. Stainville and his son, the Comte de Stainville, had evidently had spotted talent, refinement, and social adeptness in the budding artist. In 1754, at just 21, Robert was invited to join the entourage of the Comte de Stainville in Rome, where Robert internalized as much of the Eternal City as he could, as the numerous notebooks of sketches sold at his posthumous auction attest.

His relationship with Stainville not only provided him with an opportunity for this ever-important artist’s Grand Tour, it also made possible his admission to Rome’s French Academy, a distinction generally only given to winners of the Rome Prize, which he in fact never received. He remained in the city for another 11 years, and it was during that Roman holiday that the cornerstones were laid for Robert’s career, cornerstones that would quite literally appear and reappear on the architectural ruins that populated his drawings and canvases throughout the rest of his life.

His portrayals of artists in their own dilapidated, romantic surroundings suggest that the worlds of fantasy and reality straddled a fine line for him even beyond the well-known capricci. In The Artist in His Studio, painted in 1765, during the last year of his Italian sojourn, an artist—possibly Robert himself—draws from a marble bust on his work table. On the walls, drawings and a framed painting are hung without much care, one having turned 90 degrees. The sunlight shining in from the open windows is the only illumination, while the only other living creature is his loyal dog sniffing curiously in the foreground.

This meta-narrative runs through his career, as with the somewhat romanticized chalk drawing of the sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, best known for his restoration on Roman marbles, at work in his studio in the mid-1760s, and, 20 years later, the lively and vibrant Studio of an Antiquities Restorer in Rome (circa 1783). Here, the entire workshop has become a capriccio in itself, with eroded Corinthian columns pulled from a decrepit portico in the recesses of his mind that he very likely faced in person two decades before. The structure supports a much later wooden roof sheltering sarcophagus fragments, marble statuary like the allegory of the Nile that today sits in front of the Palazzo Senatorio, and bronzes such as a larger-than-life-size Minerva. It is a clear and sunny early morning on which these men work and visitors, notably mostly women, look on in wonderment, dwarfed by the beauty and the antiquity surrounding them.

These fictitious vistas of Roman monuments, set outdoors more often than indoors, had by the 1780s become Robert’s specialty, and much of the show is devoted to the genre that he more or less singlehandedly popularized. For Diderot, painted ruins translated to poetry, and Robert’s compositions highlighted the “beautiful horror” that Diderot felt was paramount to the power of these works. Likewise, it is almost impossible to ignore the similarities between Robert’s fantastic depictions of the detrimental effects of time and nature on the creations of man and Edmund Burke’s 1757 tract on the sublime. The melancholic, idealized beauty of Robert’s compositions proves to be a perfect visualization of Diderot’s sentiments toward ruins as filtered through his own reading of Burke. In 1767, at the time of Robert’s Salon debut, Diderot famously wrote, “The ideas ruins awaken in me are big. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes. Only the world remains. Only time endures.”

Though he has been canonized for these almost ubiquitous ruinous views, Robert was in fact so prolific that it is easy to forget the sheer scope of his oeuvre. But one thread remains, and that is Robert’s striking understanding and interpretation of mortality and life’s fragility, from timeworn, fragmentary architecture to laundrywomen performing the labors that would mark their lives daily. This sense of looming death might well have fed into Robert’s own need for constant sociability and what Vigée Lebrun might describe today as a “fear of missing out.”

In this extensive exhibition, with over 100 artworks in total, we see in Robert’s art of the second half of the 18th century his personal trajectory and France’s as well, from his movement alongside the ranks of nobility, his academic upbringing, his reliance on Italian masters like Giovanni Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, his involvement in interior and exterior artistic projects, his consideration of other media (in the form of stone folies and painted porcelain), to the effects of the Reign of Terror under Robespierre as seen through the artist’s own imprisonment at Saint-Lazare and through the post-Revolutionary destruction of châteaux and ecclesiastical monuments (and even their rehabilitation under Alexandre Lenoir with an 1801 interior of the Museum of Monuments).

One unusual example that stands out is Robert’s extant work for Jean Joseph, marquis de Laborde, the tax collector under Louis XV. In 1786, under Robert’s scrupulous supervision, his capricci were reanimated in three dimensions in the gardens at the Château de Méréville (View of Méréville in the direction of the château). Laborde acquired the property, located about 40 miles south of Paris, in 1784, hiring the architect Jean-Benoit Vincent Barré to transform the medieval structure and Robert to conceive interior painting schemes and garden follies. Surviving drawings provide us with visual evidence of the scale of the massive landscaping project, which was recently restored. The château itself, the interiors of which included six paintings by Robert installed in two rooms, is today still unvisitable, having fallen into disrepair after the building was abandoned in 1897 and its contents sold in Paris three years later.

Four of the canvases Robert painted for Méréville—The Fountains, The Landing Place, The Obelisk, and The Old Temple—are today preserved at the Art Institute of Chicago. (The location of the other two is unknown.) Each reads as yet another tribute to Robert’s Roman holiday, truncating the wonders of that city into a series of complementary paintings destined for a thoroughly northern building. In The Landing Place, the viewer must look up to a most unexpected angle to glimpse one of the Quirinal Hill’s Horse Tamers precariously perched atop the remains of an equally incredible temple-cum-portico-cum-arch. The composition is somehow still open and airy, as nearly half the canvas is given over to a cornflower-blue sky with wisps of cumulus clouds, while in the foreground, gondolas await the figures lounging on stairs that lead to nowhere. Robert’s nonchalant and unorthodox rendering of reality shines here and in the three pendant paintings specially designed for Méréville’s petit salon.

Thus the sprezzatura that clearly defined Robert’s persona also characterized his art in Rome and beyond, and he and his close friend and fellow member of the Academy Jean-Honoré Fragonard together championed a new form of painting, marked by quick, loose brushwork and a seeming effortlessness. But that rapidity and slackness later became his academic downfall. In 1796, after that style of painting had ceased to be all the rage at the Salon, one observer noted, “The weakness of fa presto is the weakness of this facile and ingenious painter.” Nearly 20 years earlier at the Salon, Diderot had been among the first to predict that Robert’s supremacy would wane due to his painterly style: “If this artist continues to sketch, he will lose the knack of finishing, his head and his hand will become wayward….he is extravagant, his wife is a woman of fashion, he has to work fast.”

Vigée Lebrun’s 1788 portrait of the painter, which opens the exhibition catalogue, gives the sense that such criticisms probably did not much discourage him. His appearance is as casual as his sometimes slapdash brushstrokes, with wild, unkempt hair; a broken-in and wrinkled woolen coat; and a self-assured expression as he leans on his left arm to casually support his palette. Vigée Lebrun painted him in the act of looking, but she also painted him in the act of painting. His wide-eyed gaze and mien even suggest the very term that literally translated into his art, and that only a close confidant like Vigée Lebrun could have captured: capricious. Here we have a man of conviction, a man who would not change his favored artistic style for anyone, even if his refined upbringing might suggest otherwise. Evidently, despite his incarceration and the deathly chill of the Terror, Robert was not deterred from continuing to create the ruinous, saturnine world that had brought him fame among the aristocracy decades earlier, from being the artist and socialite he wanted to be, and, in short, from living his life.

By Martina D’Amato

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: September 2016

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