Catalogue: “the overall spacial fluidity [remarkable] slightly syncopated … the space offers the surprise of a tree-framed aperture at the top of the steps on the left, and easily accommodates the irregular perspective … recalls landscapes of the German artist Friedrich Reclam … “
“The ideas that ruins awaken within me are grandiose. Everything is annihilated, everything perishes, every thing passes out of existence; the world alone remains, time alone endures. How old this world is! I walk between two eternities. Wherever I cast my eyes, the objects surrounding me speak of an end and make me resigned to that which awaits me … ” (– Denis Diderot after seeing a now lost Grande galerie eclairee du fond by Robert)
Dear friends and readers,
Hubert Robert is such a favorite artist with me that I braved intense heat, a long trip on the Metro for a second day (see first), a crowded city a couple of days after the exhibit opened. I worried lest Metro service get worse, and didn’t trust them to resume regular service on the lines I use in time to see the exhibit.
Seven or eight rooms filled with paintings, drawings, watercolors, an area for sketchbooks take you through the phases of Robert’s impressive career(click on one hour podcast art evaluation as biography to the right). His life takes you through an outline of the history of France: the ancien regime as experienced by the young man lifted well above his original station (his parents were servants in an aristocratic house) in Rome, and shoring up material for later years:
Catalogue: “the painting … shows a setting sun illuminating the exaggeratedly huge fortress as it looms against an orange-tinted sky, seems to admirably capture the extraordinary surge of feeling that would lead in just a few weeks to the building’s total destruction …”
Then suspect for his associations and thrown in prison, almost executed,
Catalogue: “the identity of the man … is uncertain … [this is] a portrait of a cell with its spartan furnishings, augmented by such comforts as a couple of books, a somewhat ornate chest, and a small mirror. Hanging prominently on the wall is a hat with the tricolor cockade … [this sort of symbol had become] a kind of camouflage, simply to fit in and to avoid problems.”
lucky release, and later career this time patronized by the state, involved in the transformation of the Louvre
The exhibit concentrated on and brought out beautifully the quiet learned and contemplative aspect of the man’s work. You are told how successful he was from a very young age, how hard working, how serious, how he loved to socialize (Vigee-LeBrun doubted he ate at home more than three times a year), how many real friends he had, and that he was certainly good at networking too. I thought to myself he was as much a survivor as Talleyrand or Madame de Genlis.
One of the striking things to me about the exhibit the day I went was it was not crowded. It’s well advertised and large, just the sort of thing that usually draws a crowd. It was a Sunday afternoon; elsewhere I saw lots of people hurrying, scurrying, peering close up. Instead there were people I’d call reading and academic types sitting at a distance from pictures, at the center of a room contemplating what they were looking at. No one stood in my way. However successful in his lifetime, Robert’s is not a popular art. It is not aggressively aimed at the viewer; nothing exaggerated in the psychology of the figures. Tellingly, Robert seems to have done hardly any portraits of recognizable people close up.
I bought the exhibit book (a few essays, a thoroughly detailed chronology, catalogue raisonne) although in hardback (a slight sale) when I was told there would not be a paperback. It disappointed me in how studiedly neutral and unanalytic the essays were. I wondered why. There is fine review by Phllip Kennicott, “Stroll ancient Rome with Hubert Robert as tour guide,” which ends perceptively on the mood the exhibit stirs in a receptive viewer (Washington Post).
So a few thoughts. The exhibit emphasized the capriccios, how much that we see is learned fantasy. His art is also playful, comic, with unexpected salaciousness (which I doubt Austen would have liked and might have complained about to Cassandra). He can pander to patrons. Take the Hermit in his Garden: it’s an illustration of an incident from La Fontaine’s “L’Ermite”, itself from an anti-feminist medieval bawdy tale. A friar lusts after a girl, tricks her deluded mother into leaving her daughter with him, impregnates the girl who just loves the experience (see Joseph Baillio, A Hermit in a Garden: A new acquisition for the Speed Art Museum, 2001). Study the Laundress and Child:
There is something very mean in this fall of Madame du Barry — she was guillotined later; some of his patrons had resented her because she was lower class: “How the mighty are fallen?”
It may be that Robert never tired of company whose variety he never found uncongenial, but over a lifetime of long working hours, weeks, months, years, the pictures he produced focus on moments of stillness, solitude, study, vulnerability, people at work.
He doesn’t just juxtapose ordinary people going about their lives in these ruins as counter cheerful images, the wittiest of which may be the famous Ponte Salario whose upper center in woman trying to rescue her cat:
He pays attention to poor and middle class people: the first is about the woman and her child in the Roman landscape:
Catalogue: “the speed of the execution is especially evident here in the quick nervous delineation of the tree that takes up most of the page. In many ways it is a more intricately wrought ornament to serve as a framework for the two figures walking through the countryside than a product of nature … composed with great ingenuity and spirit … “
Catalogue: that he chose to draw such modest places is stressed.
This fantasy Fountain at Vauclause combines sublime mountains with small Chardin-like figures:
This is a wild concatenation of images, and meditation on Poussin
He studied the materials from which buildings and cities were made:
From Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: “fascinating social and historical documents, charting with considerable topographical and human detail major developments in urban renewal in Paris. The city appears in its dual identity of social space and human construction …. chaos and the temporality of human endeavour prevail … [when he makes the people puny in comparison he shows the still lingering influence of] Giovanni Piranesi [but it] unheroic and against the grain of the celebratory ….
It’s a mood and stance that connect it to this fantasy Remains of the Palace of Pope Julius
which forms a pair unexpectedly with
He is just so varied. Here is a rare sketch of his wife, Marie Suzanne Girouet-Roslin, “Madame Robert Sewing:”
He often shows people creating art, involved somehow, and the charm here (there is no other word for it) is to see the people studying patterns for classical monuments while they sit inside one just going up as a ruin:
I like best the small unnoticed details, rich coloration and drawing, and figures of people who can’t be brought into anything schematic: first the old man, how he’s dressed, from the Garden of the Italian Villa (the first picture way above)
Then this small passage in one of his garden scenes — the original is much much greener, many shades of dark rich green:
He draws Madame Geoffrin drawing for lunch:
Many red chalk drawings were there and they are so appealing (hardly any watercolors though); some waiting to be “worked up” later into paintings; others curious visions in themselves, by no means all classical:
I close on a portrait of Robert reprinted far less often than the robust figure Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun caught earlier in life: