Hubert Robert & the Joy of Ruins

Hubert Robert, 1733–1808

an exhibition at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, March 9–May 30, 2016; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., June 26–October 2, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition by Margaret Morgan Grasselli and Yuriko Jackall, with contributions by Guillaume Faroult, Catherine Voiriot, and Joseph Baillio
National Gallery of Art/Lund Humphries, 281 pp., $60.00
Hubert Robert; painting by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1788
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Hubert Robert; painting by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1788

Currently on view at the National Gallery of Art, a retrospective of the work of Hubert Robert is the first of this prolific, protean, and outstandingly inventive eighteenth-century artist to be mounted in America. It is a reduced version of the more comprehensive exhibition that was shown in Paris last spring under the title “Hubert Robert, 1733–1808: Un peintre visionnaire.”1 The greatest painter of antiquities in eighteenth-century Europe, Robert would likely have welcomed the spaces afforded him in both venues. In Paris, the exhibition was installed in the galleries underneath I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre—a museum whose Grand Gallery was redesigned in the mid-1940s in accordance with Robert’s ideas for lighting and display. In Washington, it is handsomely hung in the stately rooms of John Russell Pope’s neoclassical West Building, in a city whose public buildings abound in columns, peristyles, colonnades, and cupolas.

The exhibitions, and the catalogs that accompany them, distill Robert’s prodigious output in paintings, watercolors, and drawings made over nearly half a century. Like the older artist François Boucher, Robert is thought to have produced no fewer than one thousand paintings and as many as ten thousand drawings. His friend the portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun recalled that “he painted a picture as fast as he wrote a letter”; one of his protégés noted that he needed no more than one day to finish a large painting.

Robert’s paintings and drawings are to be found in most public collections, and they appear regularly at auction; but his facility and ubiquity have tended to diminish the regard in which he is held. Ingres acknowledged Robert’s talent but dismissed him as “only a decorator.”2 The Goncourt brothers, concerned to rehabilitate the art of the ancien régime, called him the “charming painter of witty ruins” but excluded him from their pantheon of artists.3 Renoir, by contrast, had little doubt of his stature. “That century which I adore produced great landscape artists,” he informed René Gimpel in April 1918. “I humbly consider not only that my art descends from Watteau, Fragonard, Hubert Robert, but even that I am one of them.”4

Robert was the best-educated and most-favored artist of the ancien régime. His parents were body servants in the household of François Joseph de Choiseul, marquis de Stainville (1700–1770), who came to Paris in 1726 as the envoy of the dukes of Lorraine and Bar at the court of Louis XV. In 1745, at the age of twelve, Robert entered the prestigious Collège de Navarre, founded in 1305, and for the next six years pursued a classical education there. He remained an able Latinist, translating Virgil with his patron, the bailli de Breteuil, in Rome in the early 1760s,…

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