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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hubert Robert

There's an old cliche that proclaims, "Some people have all the luck." I suppose the counterpart to this is, "Some people make their own luck." Perhaps one might add that the really lucky people have both going for them. Many of us could no doubt recount instances of both in our own lives. I know I certainly could, though I could probably use a little more of the latter. God knows I've had my share of the former. But, I'm working on it.

Hubert Robert, 1788, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
Hubert Robert (Frenchly pronounced ro-BARE) seems to have had both. His father was an ecuyer.  Don't bother with your French dictionary, it means he was something like a valet. It means Hubert wasn't exactly born in the slums of Paris in 1733. His father's employer was the wealthy and influential Marquis Choiseul-Stainville. And though young Hubert didn't attend the Sorbonne, he did go to the prestigious College de Navarre, a Jesuit institution that might be thought of as pretty close to second best. There the lucky young lad quickly picked up a love of the classics in French, Italian, Greek, and Latin. Later he studied with the French Sculptor, Michel-Ange Slotz from whom he gained an amazing skill in the use of perspective.

The Fire of Rome, of July, 64 AD, 1795, Hubert Robert.
The artist seems to have had a fascination with fires.
In 1754, barely out of his teens, luck struck again when Robert managed to hitch a ride to Rome in the entourage of the newly appointed French ambassador, along with the marquis' son, who later became the Duke of Choiseul and first Minister of France. (This childhood friendship was to pay off handsomely when Robert returned to Paris.) Though as an artist, he'd never entered the competition for the Prix de Rome, much less won it, he found himself rubbing elbows with those who had. He sat next to them, absorbing lectures, drawing, and painting the Roman ruins, antiquities, and landscapes. Though having no official status with the French Academy in Rome, he managed to attend classes there regularly and mooch off the French legation for an astounding eleven years during which time he associated with the likes of Fragonard, Panini, and enough art collectors to keep him in spending money for the duration.

Demolition of the Houses on the Notre Dame Bridge,
1786, Hubert Robert
In 1765, Robert returned to Paris where his painting skills quickly won him space on the crowded Salon walls and admission into the French Academy. (Influential friends no doubt helped a lot on this score.) He earned the nickname, Robert des Ruines, for his considerable ability in painting romantic visions of ancient, and not-so-ancient ruins, including the demolition of the Pont Notre Dame (above) and the Hotel Dieu in flames (from sketches made during the fire).

Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in Ruins, 1796, Hubert Robert
Perhaps his most fanciful work is his Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in Ruins (above). For those not familiar with Paris, that's the main concourse of the Louvre. Painted in 1796, he depicts himself sketching among the ruins, the damaged remnants of the Louvre's art treasures, while squabbling thieves and peasant cooking pots both boil nearby. Incidentally, his fanciful painting actually spurred much needed renovation of the crumbling old palace.

The Bathing Pool (detail), ca. 1753, Hubert Robert
Robert's romantic, ancient vistas made him highly popular during his time, an example of his creating his own luck. Later, his work was an important influence during the early 1800s as the Romantic era in French painting began. Robert died in 1808, though but for another stroke of luck, his death could have come as much as ten years earlier. During the French Revolution Robert was imprisoned. He escaped losing his head solely because someone else was mistakenly guillotined in his place.

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