Lot 89
  • 89

Hubert Robert

80,000 - 120,000 USD
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  • Hubert Robert
  • The distribution of milk at Saint-Lazare prison
  • oil on paper, mounted on canvas, in a painted oval


Edmond Courty, Chatillon sur Seine, France, by 1959;
Anonymous sale, Paris, Masson, 18 October 2002, lot 143 (as studio of Hubert Robert);
With Emmanuel Moatti, Paris;
From whom purchased by the present collector. 


L. Réau, Histoire du Vandalisme: Les monuments détruits de l'art français, vol. 1, Paris 1959, p. 378, reproduced. 


The following condition report has been provided by Simon Parkes of Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc. 502 East 74th St. New York, NY 212-734-3920, simonparkes@msn.com, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This work has been recently restored and should be hung in its current condition. The canvas is recently lined, and the paint layer is in particularly good condition. There are presumably a few tiny retouches added but they are neither visible under ultraviolet light or to the naked eye. Although the work is presented as an oval, it is a square canvas with dark brown painted spandrels which are certainly old if not period. These are also in excellent condition. The work is very presentable and should be hung as is.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

On October 29, 1793, Robert was arrested and jailed by the Revolutionary authorities for having failed to renew his citizen's card, though the true motivation for his imprisonment was surely his ties to the French aristocracy. He was held initially at the convent of Sainte-Pélagie and transferred on January 30-31, 1794 to the seminary of Saint-Lazare, both of which had been converted from former leper houses for use as prisons. Today the site of the prison is occupied by the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. Robert was released in August of 1794 after the fall of Robespierre.

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.