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Hubert Robert at the Flower-Strewn Abyss

Nina L. Dubin, associate professor of art history, University of Illinois at Chicago. On the occasion of the exhibition Hubert Robert, 1733–1808 at the National Gallery of Art, Nina Dubin presented a lecture on September 26, 2016, that examined a series of Hubert Robert’s paintings from the 1780s. The theme of these works is courtship menaced by the potential for calamity. Male suitors climb ladders in an attempt to procure flowers for their female love interests or cling to tree branches while trying to secure a token of their affection in the form of a bird’s nest. No less than his contemporaneous views of Paris—evocations of a city vacillating between prosperity and ruin—Robert’s chronicles of the rise and potential fall of a man in love embody the suspenseful confluence of dread and hope that characterized the prerevolutionary period. As Dubin argues, it is no accident that in such a climate, Robert would take up the theme of a lover’s potential mishap: along with the ancient myths of Icarus, Phaethon, and others who fatally believed they could defy the force of gravity, the folly of love furnished eighteenth-century audiences with a shorthand means of coming to terms with the dawning ethereality—the manias, fads, and bubbles—of modern existence.