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The ruin-strewn landscapes of Hubert Robert

How Hubert Robert assembled new worlds with the tumbled remains of the classical past.

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If Hubert Robert was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth his at least was silver-gilt. His parents were personal assistants to the diplomat and courtier the Marquis de Stainville and the Marquise, and so he grew up as an adjunct to a high status family. The connection gave him both access to a classical education and an entrée into an aristocratic world of would-be patrons. Where others might be awed, throughout his career Robert was known for the easy way, learned in youth, he conducted himself with the nobility.

Nevertheless, Robert (1733-1808) possessed all the qualities for success: one female admirer described him as “A man of wit and taste who paints, not a painter”, while the portraitist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun thought him “the most amiable man one could encounter in society”. She also astutely noted his “extreme facility that can be judged either fortunate or fatal: he painted a picture as quickly as he wrote a letter; but when he chose to master his talents, his works were often perfect”.

Vigée Le Brun was a good judge; Robert painted more than 1,000 works – from floor-to-ceiling wall decorations to near miniatures – as well as making innumerable drawings. His eye for harmonious effect led Voltaire to commission him to design stage scenery for his theatre at Ferney and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to appoint him both designer of the king’s gardens and keeper of the king’s pictures. In the ­former capacity he worked in the grounds of ­Versailles and other royal palaces, in the latter he was instrumental in turning the Louvre into a picture gallery.

Robert’s artistic ascent was frictionless. After a brief period of training in a sculptor’s studio, in 1754 aged 21 he travelled to Rome in the entourage of Etienne François de Choiseul, the newly appointed French ambassador to the Holy See and the son of his parents’ patrons. Once there it was De Choiseul who gained him a place to study at the Académie de France (usually only open to students who had won the Prix de Rome scholarship). At the Académie he became friends with Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who would become one of the leading French artists of the day, and was mentored by the pre-eminent Italian view- and ruin-painters Giovanni Paolo Pannini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

[see also: The endless vistas of Joachim Patinir]

Under their influence he started to produce imaginary vistas of Rome with its monuments implausibly but picturesquely gathered in one place. These capricci – atmospheric, lushly coloured, and evocative – were designed to appeal to the taste for the antique that had been sparked by the recent discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii and which was such a distinguishing feature of the upper echelon of European society.

In 1766, after 12 years in Rome, Robert returned to Paris and was quickly admitted to the Académie Royale, which allowed him to exhibit at the annual Salon, Paris’s showcase exhibition. It was there that he caught the attention of the critic and philosophe Denis Diderot. Robert produced 13 paintings for the Salon of 1767 and their effect on Diderot was instantaneous: “What beautiful, sublime ruins! What decisiveness and at the same time what lightness, control, and facility with the brush! What an effect! What grandeur! What nobility!” And he went on to express the sensation Robert’s paintings of tumbled classical buildings evoked in every feeling heart: “Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. How old is this world! I walk between two eternities.” The painter became known as “Robert of the ruins”.

These sensations are to the fore in this picture, The Obelisk of 1789, now in the St Louis Art Museum. It is an imagined view composed of discrete elements – a corner of a classical building (more Venice than Rome) with some carefully scattered architectural fragments and an antique obelisk fountain that is a cousin to the one in front of the Pantheon in the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome. Some picturesque loiterers add scale and the eye is taken down the lion-guarded steps (mimicked by a lounging dog) and away into a landscape that is more Arcadia than real.

Time has done its work, but only to the point of poetry not of desuetude: here is decay at its most agreeable. The people in the scene live harmoniously with the deep past, just as Robert’s clients did in their own recherché way. If there is history here, of an unspecific and composite kind, there is continuity too. Everything about the scene is benign, even the clouds are pillowy rather than rain-laden, while, as Diderot identified, the overall effect is one of “sweet melancholy”. Robert’s picture, and numerous others like it, allowed his patrons to live in a dream. If they asked him, he would even help them build such a vision in their parks.

That dream, of course, did not survive the French Revolution, which broke out in the same year this picture was painted. Robert’s good luck held, even when in 1793 he was arrested under the Law of Suspects and imprisoned for “his known absence of civic-mindedness, his connections with the aristocrats”. He was nevertheless given access to painting materials and produced more than 50 pictures during his nine months of incarceration, as well as painting pastoral scenes on prison plates. While other poet and artist friends in the rooms next to his went to the guillotine, Robert survived, possibly because a painter with a similar name was executed in his stead.

On his release in 1794 he returned to the Louvre palace, where he both lived and worked, and resumed his roles of curator and gallery planner. He carried on painting under Napoleon but eventually, according to a eulogy, “death surprised him at his easel, and caused the palette to fall from his hand even as he was creating another picture”.

Back in 1780 he had designed a tomb for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the guiding light of the age of sensibility, which sits, as if plucked from one of his paintings, in bucolic peace and isolation on an island in the lake of the Château of Ermenonville. But the indefatigable Robert, caught up in his work, had neglected to design one for himself. 

[see also: The meticulous paintings of Winifred Knights]

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 17 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold