A prolific and versatile artist of unfaltering talent, Hubert Robert was one of the painters who left their decisive imprint on the art of the last years of the Ancien Régime.
Initially destined for a career as a sculptor, his early training was under Michel-Ange Slodtz, who taught him the rudiments of perspective. However, he soon turned his energies towards painting and in the company of the Comte de Stainville – the future Duc de Choiseul – he travelled to Rome in 1754. He spent eleven decisive years there developing his art. As well as undertaking advanced and careful studies of the antique and modern Roman monuments that would always feature in his work, he became friends with Fragonard and crossed paths with Piranesi and Pannini, encounters that were to have a crucial effect on the development of the art of his maturity.
In July 1766, shortly after his return from Italy, he was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and his career began to take off. Specialising in the genres of landscape and capriccio, he regularly exhibited at the Salon du Louvre and soon attracted a large and wealthy clientele who gave him many commissions, including some important ones from royal quarters. Success never left him, at least until the French Revolution, when he lost many of his patrons.
When Hubert Robert was admitted to the Académie, it was as a ‘painter of architecture’, a description that now might seem rather reductive, far from doing justice to the artist’s profuse pictorial output.
A productive painter and draughtsman, master of variations on a theme, he was skilled in all formats, from small panels to large decorative canvases.
Inspired by his Roman tour, he was known as the painter of ruins and monuments ravaged by time, reflecting Diderot’s ideas about capturing the ‘poetic’ in them, which he did to great effect. This fascination with ruins, which consumed art lovers, collectors and painters in the second half of the century, opened the way for Romanticism, but also sounded a prophetic knell just before the collapse of the Ancien Régime.
Hubert Robert orchestrated all his motifs – crumbling temples, half-buried statues, colonnades engulfed by climbing plants and brambles – with endless diversity and a rarely equalled felicity, creating theatrical scenes populated by more contemporary figures of fantasy: shepherds and shepherdesses, washerwomen, livestock and horsemen…
The two paintings from the Ribes collection are among the most perfect examples of capriccios of ruins produced by the artist in the 1770s and 1780s.
Painted as pendants, the first shows a morning with a clear sky and a rural landscape containing antique ruins: in the background there is a temple whose portico recalls the Pantheon. In the foreground, a majestic and grandiose fountain, its architecture inspired by the Arch of Septimius Severus, is the focus of activity for the figures gathered around it. A niche in the centre of the fountain contains a statue of Jupiter, at whose feet a river god and a nymph empty an urn, filling the great basin with the clear water that the washerwomen have come to fetch. The scene is peaceful and serene.
The second painting depicts a sunset, with the warm light of a blazing sky flooding an imposing architectural complex in marked perspective, with arches, fountains, stairways and colonnades, which seem to disappear towards the horizon in the manner of Piranesi.
In each of the paintings, Robert demonstrates an impressive mastery of the composition. The balance is perfectly controlled, the distribution of elements is carefully considered, the relationship between the figures and the landscape and architecture surrounding them is natural. Although they were originally intended for the decoration of a drawing room, the artist goes beyond the decorative and anecdotal to reach the poetry that Diderot was calling for. Hubert Robert evokes a lost fantasy world that still touches the modern viewer, despite the passing of the centuries.
From one Salon to another: from Madame Geoffrin to the Rue de la Bienfaisance
The provenance of a work by Hubert Robert still in private hands has rarely benefited from such prestigious and precisely documented origins. Such paintings rarely come on to the market, and these two examples have not been seen since they were last sold in 1961.
Detailed records in the catalogue of Comte de la Bedoyère’s sale in 1921, written by Catroux, confirm that the two works are those that Madame Geoffrin (1699-1777) commissioned directly from the artist, probably in 1771 or 1772, along with a third, The Forest of Caprarola (presents whereabouts unknown; fig. 1). The collector herself described the circumstances of the commission in her journal: ‘I began my collection of paintings in 1750. They were all made before my eyes.’ She goes on to describe in detail the various works she commissioned from Hubert Robert, including ‘three large paintings of fabriques and landscapes to replace the three large Van Loo paintings that I sold to the Empress of Russia’. Two of these paintings of ‘fabriques and landscapes’ (as compositions representing imaginary architecture were described in France at that time) are the present works. For this significant commission, Robert received the considerable sum of 2760 livres.
An interesting detail unremarked until now, which enables the date of execution of these works to be pinpointed, is that the painting of The Forest of Caprarola was exhibited at the 1771 Salon (which opened on 14 August), listed as no. 81. This means that that work, and probably the two present paintings, must have been commissioned and painted substantially earlier than the date normally proposed for them. Several other paintings by Robert with titles that could be linked with the two present works were shown at the 1771 Salon, but the dimensions outlined in the catalogue do not permit them to be identified with certainty.
This was not the first time that Madame Geoffrin had sought out Robert’s work. In 1768 and 1769 she had already commissioned four medium-sized oval paintings as well as four other smaller paintings. Towards the end of her life, she would ask him for three final works: three views of the Abbaye Saint-Antoine where she hoped to retire before her death. Taken together, all these works make Madame Geoffrin one of Hubert Robert’s keenest admirers – and Morning and Evening are certainly two of the most important among them.
It is beyond doubt that Madame Geoffrin held a significant place in France’s intellectual and artistic life in the second half of the eighteenth century. Born into the petite bourgeoisie, Marie-Thérèse Rodet married Pierre François Geoffrin, whose fortune offered his wife the opportunity to host one of the most brilliant Salons of Paris in her mansion on the Rue Saint-Honoré. She held her Salon twice a week, receiving scholars, men of letters and philosophers on Wednesdays and – an innovation at the time – reserving Mondays for artists, offering them an alternative to the more formal setting of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. She also kept up a considerable correspondence with several European courts, including Gustav III of Sweden and the Empress Catherine II, thus encouraging the spread of Enlightenment thought as well as promoting French artistic tastes beyond the kingdom’s borders.
From 1768, Hubert Robert joined these celebrated Monday sessions, and his connection with his patron gradually strengthened. As well as in the paintings described above, proof of their close relationship exists in several small paintings and drawings showing Madame Geoffrin in various domestic contexts. One of the most famous is Madame Geoffrin at Lunch (fig. 2; private collection), in which Robert reveals his subtle powers of observation, with a compassionate and intimate portrayal of the woman who had given him so much support.
Morning and Evening from the Ribes collection are perfect examples of Robert’s art at the peak of his career. In a monumental format and in excellent condition, they encapsulate the poetics of ruins that Diderot was searching for.
As the critic Charles Lecarpentier wrote in his funeral oration for the artist (Lecarpentier, 1808, p. 2): [His landscapes spread] ‘a sort of melancholy through the soul, leading it through the scattered debris of a long succession of accumulated centuries’.
It is surely because of the profound timelessness of Robert’s landscapes and ruins that his art still touches us today.