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Hubert Robert, 1733 - 1808

Architectural Capriccio with the Port of Ripetta and the Pantheon, 1760, pen and ink with wash and watercolor over chalk on paper that appears to be partially prepared. Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva

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A Hermit Praying in the Ruins of a Roman Temple, c. 1760, oil on canvas. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Humorous touches — for example, the attempt by a young woman on a ladder to distract the monk with branches — seem at first to align this work with Robert’s series of lighthearted genre scenes depicting daily life in Italy amid the ruins. Yet the humbleness of the monk, together with the still life of hourglass, skull, and rosary on the makeshift altar, suggests somber reflections on the transience of life.

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Architectural Fantasy with a Triumphal Bridge, c. 1760, chalk. National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Armand Hammer Collection, 1987

During his eleven years in Rome Robert was greatly influenced by the inventive prints of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. This work was inspired by Piranesi’s famous etchings of imaginary prisons that feature similarly massive bridges and complex views through archways. Although the ancient equestrian statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161 – 180) stood for centuries on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, Robert fancifully placed it at the intersection of two bridges, one of his favorite visual motifs.

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The Water Theater of the Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, 1762, pen and ink with wash and watercolor and touches of white gouache, over graphite on two joined sheets. Albertina, Vienna

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Archaeologists at the Temple of Vespasian, 1762, chalk. Private collection

The figures assiduously taking notes on the ruins are apparently amateur archaeologists. Their inclusion here acknowledges the newly burgeoning enthusiasm for studying, recording, and restoring the ancient ruins of Italy. Nearly buried in sediment over time, the forty-six-foot-high columns of the Temple of Vespasian (dedicated in 87 to the deified Roman emperor) were not fully excavated until the nineteenth century. Eighteenth-century scholars therefore had easy access to the very top of the structure.

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The Oval Fountain in the Gardens of the Villa d’Este, Tivoli, c. 1763, chalk over graphite. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Neil Phillips and Mr. and Mrs. Ivan Phillips, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1990

The gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, situated nearly twenty miles east of Rome, were a favorite subject for artists almost from the moment they were created in the 1560s. By the end of the seventeenth century, the grand park and fountains had fallen into neglect, with the gardens reverting to a half-tamed wilderness. The picturesque results of the ongoing struggle between Nature and man-made order would have held special appeal for Robert, who visited Tivoli many times.

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Fountain in a Park, 1763/1765, chalk. The Art Institute of Chicago, Restricted gift of Margaret Day Blake

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The Discoverers of Antiquities, c. 1765, oil on canvas. Musée de Valence, Art et Archéologie

The archaeological fervor of the eighteenth century is embodied in this image of a torch-bearing guide eagerly revealing Rome’s ancient secrets to his wealthy and cultivated foreign client. The rustic figures at the entrance to the site are perhaps less fascinated by the splendid find than by the preoccupation of the educated classes with such excursions. Typically for Robert, the image combines accuracy and fiction. The statue of a captive barbarian warrior is recognizable as one then in the Capitoline Museum in Rome; the arcaded gallery recalls the Colosseum; and the pyramid in the distance is identifiable as the tomb of the ancient Roman magistrate Gaius Cestius. These relics, however, were never within visible distance of one another.

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The Pantheon with the Port of Ripetta, 1766, oil on canvas. École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, on deposit from the Département des Peintures du Musée du Louvre

Robert’s majestic fantasy combines recognizable structures from different eras and different locations in Rome: the ancient Pantheon, dedicated in 126; the curved staircase built in 1705 in the Ripetta, the city’s port on the Tiber River; and, at left, part of the magnificent façade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, designed in the sixteenth century by Michelangelo. This painting secured Robert admittance to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. His first completed version of the composition is the watercolor from 1760 (slide no. 1).

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Architectural Capriccio with Ancient Monuments, 1766/1767, two shades of red chalk. Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques, Paris

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Stair and Fountain in the Park of a Roman Villa, c. 1770, oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the Ahmanson Foundation

This monumental work represents a summit in the artist’s experimentation with the subject of gardens. The immense vessel in the lower left corner, known as the Borghese Vase (now at the Louvre), is a much-admired ancient Greek artifact discovered in Rome in the sixteenth century. The enchanting setting was inspired by the celebrated terraced gardens and fountains at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, but the fanciful arrangement is an improbable feat of architecture and engineering that sprang entirely from the artist’s own imagination.

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An Ancient Circular Temple in a Wooded Landscape, c. 1770, chalk. Private collection, U. K.

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The Ponte Salario, c. 1775, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952

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View of the Tapis Vert at Versailles, 1777, oil on canvas. Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles

In the mid-1770s, the trees in a small park at the royal residence in Versailles began dying one after the other. Louis XVI ordered their removal and commissioned Robert to execute this view of the destruction. To the right of the improvised seesaw, Robert included Marie-Antoinette, dressed in a pale gown and bending over two children, and the king, in red, consulting with a figure traditionally identified as the royal director of buildings.

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The Studio of an Antiquities Restorer in Rome, c. 1783, oil on canvas. Lent by the Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey

Robert studied many of the depicted statues in person in Italy, though never in one place. In the center of the painting, an artist sketches and watches the restorer work on an ancient statue of the Greek philosopher Zeno. Perhaps a stand-in for Robert, the artist might also be considered a type of restorer, one who ensures the survival of classical art through his own study.

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The Landing Place, 1788, oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Richard T. Crane

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The Monuments of Paris, 1788, oil on canvas. Collection Power Corporation of Canada, Montreal

Although there were few classical vestiges in Paris, this capriccio conveys a grandeur that sets the city in dialogue with Robert’s depictions of Rome. The assemblage spans centuries of Parisian history, from antiquity to the modern era. Among the pile of fragments in the right foreground corner is a piece of a Gallo-Roman pillar that had been excavated just a few decades earlier. Behind it, in the form of a domed loggia, is the sixteenth-century Fountain of the Innocents, the oldest public fountain in Paris. A bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIII (1601 – 1643) faces the triumphal arch of the Porte Saint-Denis at left, a gateway into the city built by his son Louis XIV. The long colonnade of the Louvre behind them was another of the Sun King’s building projects. Rising in the background to represent the present day is the domed Church of Sainte-Geneviève, which had just been constructed.

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Landscape with Arcadian Shepherds, 1789, oil on canvas. Musée de Valence, Art et Archéologie

Ancient Greek and Roman poets celebrated Arcadia (a region in the Peloponnese) as a bucolic spot of unspoiled wilderness, where shepherds lived in harmony with a benevolent Nature. In this imaginary scene of the fabled land, shepherds ponder the melancholic inscription on a tomb: “Even I, a shepherd in Arcadia,” alluding to the inevitability of death, even in such an idyllic setting. The composition pays homage to the great seventeenth-century French artist Nicolas Poussin, whose paintings, like Robert’s, reflect a serious study of classical antiquity, particularly the legacy of ancient Rome. Poussin’s renditions of the same subject, well known in France among artists and critics alike, also include the motif of shepherds contemplating a tomb and its profound inscription.

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An Inmate of Saint-Lazare Prison, 1794, pen and ink and watercolor. Collection Andrea Woodner

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View of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins, 1796, oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris

In this imaginary scene of the Louvre as a ruin a young artist copies a bronze cast of the Apollo Belvedere, one of the most famous of all ancient statues. Apollo, god of the arts, raises his arm in a triumphant gesture that seems to defy the passage of time. The remains of a few other celebrated sculptures, including the broken figure of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave in the right foreground, are visible. At the foot of Apollo, a bust of the great Renaissance master Raphael faces the young copyist, suggesting the transmission of the arts from one era to the next: despite catastrophes, the spirit of Raphael continues to inspire.

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Demolition of the Château de Meudon, 1806, oil on canvas. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Purchased in part with funds realized from the sale of paintings donated by Peter and Iselin Moller, Dr. Walter S. Udin, and Howard Young

As a prominent symbol of the monarchy, the royal residence at Meudon, outside Paris, was ransacked during the Revolution. Part of the estate was transformed into a testing ground for artillery experiments, which led to a fire that destroyed the château in 1795. Robert, who had been asked to redesign the gardens in 1784, returned to sketch the demolition of the ruins. In the right foreground, an artist happily exploits the spectacle for his own work, perhaps a tacit acknowledgment of the complexity of Robert’s own relationship to ruins and their history.

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