In Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art there is a circular ceramic plate, twenty-three centimetres in diameter and painted black. Look into the pool of black and – like a reflection in an eye – you notice a window. And leading to the window is a corridor in which figures wrapped in coats shuffle along slowly. This is Saint-Lazare, a hospital converted into a prison during the Reign of Terror. The artist is Hubert Robert, who lived from 1733 to 1808. He painted on whatever wood, ceramic or canvas he could find. In another work he depicts the milkmaids who – for a fee – pass jugs over the balustrade of a staircase into the outstretched arms of the prisoners. Fewer than twenty plates were painted during Robert’s nine months in prison in 1793–4 under suspicion; some of these depict life in jail, but more of them are of Arcadian landscapes of shepherds and waterfalls.
Ten years earlier Robert had masterminded the design of the dairy and landscape at Rambouillet, a gift from Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette. The king would go there to hunt and she would make cheese. The Laiterie de la Reine was a temple to milk. It had a neoclassical interior domed with white light, and pure water splashed from a grotto. A set of Sèvres porcelain designed for it included four cups moulded from a breast and balanced upon goats (an allusion to Rousseau’s advocacy of breast-feeding children).
In the 1780s Robert was garden designer and curator to the king, who charged him with transforming the royal palace of the Louvre into a museum. He was also one of the most fashionable artists in Europe, dubbed ‘Robert des ruines’ by Denis Diderot in an ecstatic review of the Salon of 1767. Robert expressed, on an epic scale and more than any other artist, the ruins mania of late 18th-century Europe, which arose from a combination of archaeological discovery, the new artistic taste for the asymmetrical and fragmentary, and the doubts of rising empires about their own fates. In a classic Robert scene you will see a great Roman structure and, probably through an arch, an antiquity being dug out of the ground. He is exceptional in combining the vigour of archaeological research with the lassitude of decay and takes a student’s delight in marrying the awesome with the reflection that Paris and London will one day join Rome in ruination.
‘Of all the artists I have known, Robert was the one who cut the best figure in society’, remembered Vigée Le Brun, whom Robert escorted to the gates of Paris at her flight from the city in 1789. ‘I doubt that he dined at home more than three times a year … He was naturally intelligent, was very learned without a trace of pedantry’ – he translated Virgil – ‘and the inexhaustible gaiety of his personality made him the most beloved man that one could find in society.’ He was chubby but played a nimble game of football, and a party piece was to impersonate an acrobat on a tightrope.
Robert was born at court, the son of a valet and a chambermaid to a marquis. A prodigy, he was taken to Rome in the retinue of the duc de Choiseul, France’s ambassador to the pope. Soon after his return eleven years later he was accepted into the Académie on his debut; that was exceptional, and the title of ‘painter of architecture’ that he received was unique.
He introduced himself with an oil painting in which the Roman Pantheon is picked up and put down on a newly built baroque flight of steps leading to a port on the Tiber, where it is joined by Michelangelo’s Palazzo dei Conservatori, levitated from the Campidoglio. Robert learned this genre of capricci from the painter Panini and the engraver Piranesi. What he added was a fleshiness of paint: stones glisten with moss and well-water.
‘By what magic?’ exclaimed Diderot in a review that is often quoted in the context of the ‘ruins sublime’ of the late 18th century. Less often quoted is his reaction (published art criticism was beginning at this time) to the ‘life’ he saw in the quicker, sketchier paintings of a new generation, less polished than the old school. But within four years he was cross. Robert was too ‘facile’. He painted a picture each day in order to pay for his wife’s dresses. The French and American contributors to this catalogue suggest that the fa presto (‘make quickly’) style of Robert and his sketching partner Fragonard was in itself a statement on the social position of the artist: Robert, never subservient, exhibited the nonchalance that was one invention of the age.
But the mystery is the man. We know that four children died young; that he was, perhaps, one of the best-loved artists there has ever been; and that he painted the same scenes – very often including the figure of an artist at an easel – for the king, the new rulers ushered in by the Revolution, and Napoleon.
It is this equable detachment that makes his pictures so valuable. If Goya had painted that prison corridor, we might not believe in the boy or the dog. But we learn here that the boy petting the dog beside the brazier was Emile Roucher, the five-year-old son of a poet who had requested his presence in captivity; that prisoners could bring in dogs; and that they would wave and signal to relatives and friends in the rue Paradis out of the window.
This catalogue accompanies an exhibition of a hundred of Robert’s works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the first comprehensive show in the United States. The most recent to take place in France was in 1933. What makes the book so enjoyable are not just the production standards (the images are superb) or the five short essays on aspects of Robert’s work but also the 102 individual catalogue entries. These provide the gritty small print to each of the pictures: its size and medium, its content and markings, and the names of those through whose hands it has passed. British art historians and institutions such as Tate and the Royal Academy have long since abandoned this patient detective work in favour of contextual essays. Take Robert’s painting of the demolition of the Bastille in 1789. A Tate curator would slop out a few hundred words on the fashionable themes of the sublime; or imagine, if you can, the constipated baroque grimace of Simon Schama on what the dark skies prefigure. But reading a good catalogue entry is like squinting through a keyhole onto history. An inscription tells us it was gifted to the marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American War of Independence and a member of the committee that approved the dismantling of the old prison. And we learn that, curiously, only five out of four hundred works at that year’s Salon addressed political events. ‘This relative indifference to the events unfolding persisted at subsequent Salons’, we are told. ‘Of the 794 numbers listed in 1791, only 35 (including about ten portraits of deputies) made any kind of reference to the ongoing political situation; in 1793 about 50 did so out of the 1,035 numbers listed in the catalog and its supplement.’ That is thought-provoking. Elsewhere we learn that Robert’s painted plates were sold by the jailer for a louis apiece. The unexpected destinies of objects from history interrupt – like a gouge in a record – the smooth trundling of art-historical theory.
It is said that Robert’s plates were popular with the English who remained in Paris during the Revolution. But why are there so few works by Robert in British collections, public or private, as I discovered when assembling an exhibition on artists and ruins many years ago? Is Robert too baroque, at heart, for a nation that is still frightened of curves, and sceptical of the value of domes and porticoes? That was a reason to go to Paris. In the back room of the gallery of Jean de Cayeux, who devoted his life to the study of Robert, his daughter opened a box of sanguines of Rome – that is, sketches in soft, blood-red chalk. This was a perfect medium for capturing masonry so fragile and jungled that as the young artist sketched with a board on his knees, ancient stones and plasterwork would be dislodged by the sudden flutter of a bird taking off from the wet ivy. These are some of the most beautiful studies of ruins ever committed to paper. Robert – loveable, chuckling, gifted Robert – is lucky to be the subject of such an exceptional publication.