While imprisoned, he consoled himself by painting and drawing. Materials on which to paint were scarce and in many cases he used the earthenware prison plates on which his food was served as his "canvases." Many of the works executed during this time are signed with the artist's initials followed by the letters "S.L." for Saint-Lazare. While many of the pictures Robert executed in prison are landscapes, painted from memory or purely imaginative compositions, others, such as the present example, depict scenes of life from within the prison. Here, Robert depicts the daily task of distributing milk to the prison population with striking simplicity and modernity. A female distributor leans over a large stone staircase as a tightly packed group of prisoners reach for their daily ration. A single container occupies the very center of the composition, and serves as the focal point of not only the figures' connecting arms, but of the entire composition. The composition is devoid of any outward emotion, a fact punctuated by the cold grey stone architecture. Robert paints this prison scene with Realistic honesty that requires no added sentiment.
A slightly larger variant of square format is located in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris (inv. P1580). That version features a landing and stone bannister rail at the bottom of the composition with an additional figure, a more fully articulated back wall, and a different figural arrangement along the hanging rail at right. The Musée Carnavalet canvas was commissioned by the Duc d'Audiffret-Pasquier, Robert's prison mate, as a souvenir with which to remember the kind milk sellers who offered a small reprieve to the prisoners during their imprisonment.1
1. C. Sterling, Hubert Robert, exhibition catalogue, Paris 1933.
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