|Hubert Robert, Les Décourvreurs d’antiques, 1765|
It’s been months since I went to the Louvre on a Friday night. I went in last night and fell in love all over again. The exhibition, Hubert Robert (1733-1808) A Visionary Painter comes at a strange time for the museum as it changes exhibition policies, expands its reach into Metz, Lens and Abu Dhabi, and renovates the entrance under the pyramid. For all these reasons, this wonderful exhibition of one of France’s most exciting eighteenth century painters comes as a treat.
This huge exhibition is glorious from beginning to end. The architecture sketches that open it are fascinating because even in these first works we see the concerns that will preoccupy Robert for a lifetime beginning to emerge. Buildings that are not realistically proportioned, seen from impossible perspectives in the interests of highlighting movement through space, as well as the display of features—in the case the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Piazza del Campidoglio. And from the very beginning we see Robert’s fascination with light, with space, and the built environment, his meticulous foregrounding of space as the primary subject of painting. And from the earliest rooms, we see the people as sketches, going about their daily life on the steps, in the foreground, in the squares, figures that will become the raison d’être of his work.
|Hubert Robert, View of the Capitol Square in Rome, 1770|
These images are about light, framing, perspective and the merging of imagination and reality. Robert left for Rome aged 22 and stayed for eleven years. What he sees and learns in Rome will stay with his painting for the rest of his life. Yes, the paintings get bigger—to the point of the monumental—but their basic concerns remain consistent until his death aged 75 years in Paris.
I was amazed by the use of light in Robert’s paintings. Even more than the luminosity of the German romantics, Robert saw in painting the qualities of the cinema: light creating shadows and making the spaces of the built environment. There are images such as the Vomitorium du Colisée avec une femme et un enfant, 1764 that effectively do what Daguerre’s architectural studies were doing, only seventy years before Daguerre. In this image we foresee what might be a cinematic image at the stop of the stairs. The woman and the boy down below are not watching the so-called screen, but it is, nevertheless, an image about watching and performance, another motif that recurs again and again throughout Robert’s career.
|Hubert Robert, Personnages dans une baie à Sainte Pierre de Rome, 1763|
I was also fascinated by Robert’s creation of space through paint and light; again, we will find this in Daguerre as the apparent father of French photography in the next century. There is always another frame within the frame – look at Personnages dans une baie à Sainte Pierre de Rome, 1763. Here we see another trope: the painter in the corner, painting the scene that then, of course, cannot be the scene that we see. Robert the painter, looks on and sees a painter painting. The layer upon layer of distance and depth are the precedent—or at least the visualization through a similar language—of distance and depth. There is always a foreground, middleground and background, as well as this an extension into the verticality of space.
|Hubert Robert, The Burning of Rome, 1771.|
I have barely begun to discuss the vast exhibition. The fascination Robert had with tourism, with antiquity, with the coming together of the past and the present, with the Enlightenment inspired by Antiquity, all of these disparate concerns are brought together on a single canvas. Look at Les Décourvreurs d’antiques, 1765 and its appearance as a cinematic image, bringing together the most ancient and modern of representations. In the image, we see the visualization of the watching, performance, ruins as objects to be ogled at, statues brought to life, always animated by light, by tourism.
|Hubert Robert, Corridor de la Prison de Saint-Lazare (1794)|
The fact that there is so much to say in response to Hubert's work is also an indication of the size of this exhibition, a vastness that can only do justice to the reach of Robert's painting. Even though all the works embrace life and brilliance they are also imbued with the strand of Romanticism that is melancholic, that is overcome with a nostalgia for a past that has gone forever. And yet, at the same time, he brings the past into the present, surrounding antique statues with people who use them to fasten clothes lines. In addition, the paintings may be filled with monuments as ruins, but the ruins are made breathtaking by the sun and water and light around them. Unlike his German counterparts, Robert doesn’t capture a certain moment of crepuscule, the moment that signifies loss. Often he paints in full sunlight to capture the drama of nature as it impacts the built environment. To me it is also filled with the surreal. Even when the revolution comes to influence his work, in for example Corridor de la Prison de Saint-Lazare (1794) is more like Goya than it is Friedrich or Turner with its concern for real life. Unlike the Romantics in Germany or England, Robert’s sublime moment is always framed, given context within man made structures that are perfectly recognizeable.