Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 27, 2012
Nina L. Dubin Futures and Ruins: Eighteenth-Century Paris and the Art of Hubert Robert Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010. 210 pp.; 24 color ills.; 54 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9781606060230)

In an article entitled “Les musées ne sont pas à vendre” (“Museums Are Not For Sale”) published on December 12, 2006, in the daily French paper Le Monde, the art historians Françoise Cachin, Jean Clair, and Roland Recht strongly denounced the increasing commercialization of the national patrimony, epitomized by the Louvre’s plan to rent out part of its collection to a branch established in Abu Dhabi. The authors warned the French administration against the incoherence of its cultural policy: claiming to protect the nation’s artistic treasures, while at the same time using those treasures as commodities.

The controversy over the Louvre Abu Dhabi is one of the many contemporary resonances that Nina Dubin’s book, Futures and Ruins: Eighteenth-Century Paris and the Art of Hubert Robert, holds for its reader. A meticulously researched study examining Robert’s paintings of Parisian ruins in light of the new financial interests and related economic and cultural risks that defined the city’s urban and patrimonial policies in the 1770s–1790s, Futures and Ruins will prompt readers to consider the origins of the economic and cultural precariousness of today’s world. As such, the book is both historically stimulating and morally engaging.

At the center of Futures and Ruins lies the following historical claim: in the course of the eighteenth century, Paris, in the grip of the forces of early capitalism, became the terrain of intense real estate speculation. It was enabled by the introduction of paper money in 1716, as the greater capacity for circulation of paper money precipitated transactions and engendered prospects of hastily accumulated wealth. At the same time, the reliance of the real estate market on the expansion of credit raised the specter of bankruptcy. As Dubin underscores, in agreement with the historian Michael Sonenscher, the nature of credit was characterized by “the ease with which it enabled economic prosperity, while at the same time catalyzing the potential for expansive debt” (Michael Sonenscher, Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, 91).

These economic phenomena, Dubin argues, found their aesthetic counterpart in pictures of ruins—a genre in which Robert (1733–1808), received as Peintre d’architecture at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1766, excelled. As Dubin stresses in her introduction, Robert’s paintings of Parisian ruins, triggering both terrifying and pleasurable feelings in the viewer, relate to the aesthetic of the sublime as defined by Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Moreover, as representations of potential forthcoming disasters, Robert’s paintings of Parisian ruins, as Burke’s imaginary accounts of urban catastrophes, speak for “a culture that understood itself to be modern by virtue of its capacity to envision its own destruction” (1). Hence Dubin’s reading of Robert’s paintings of Parisian ruins as symbols of a precarious present and unpredictable future that the financial gambles of the time helped create.

Dubin develops her argument in four chapters. Chapter 1, “The Unmade,” focuses on the phenomenon of ruinisme, also known as the cult of ruins. Pertaining primarily to architectural representations, ruinisme was characterized by a predilection for the unfinished, itself indicative of a new attraction to the future as the visualization of the finished work was left to the viewer’s imagination. As Dubin shows, the cult of ruins exceeded the domain of two-dimensional representations. The picturesque garden—a domain where Robert distinguished himself, as exemplified by his contribution to the design of Ermenonville’s garden for the Marquis de Girardin in the late 1770s—also called on the aesthetic of the incomplete. For example, the Temple de la Philosophie, one of the small edifices that adorned Ermenonville’s garden, was “left intentionally unfinished, a premature ruin” (24), thus turning the picturesque garden into “the paradigmatic locus of the consumption of uncertainty” (22).

While Robert can be considered one of the most prominent ruinistes of the eighteenth century, other artists also worked in this mode. The French Piranésiens, discussed at the end of the first chapter, are a case in point. Settled in Rome’s Mancini Palace in the 1740s (i.e., a decade before Robert’s arrival there), the French Piranésiens, emulating Piranesi’s fictional views of decaying classical edifices, transformed Rome in their prints into “a sort of imaginary capital” (29) that announced Robert’s own capricci (Dubin quotes here André Chastel, “Préface,” in Villa Medici, Piranèse et les Français 1740–1790, exh. cat., Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 1976, 15). More importantly, Dubin argues, their imaginary views of crumbling classical monuments reveal a disenchantment with antique forms. Indeed, these views contradict the value of timelessness traditionally associated with the antique, invoking instead ephemerality. In this respect, they reinforce the connection between ruinisme and precariousness that lies at the center of the book’s argument.

Chapter 2, “Scenes from Hell,” deals with Robert’s paintings of contemporary urban disasters, including his views of accidental fires of Parisian monuments. Dubin highlights the competing views of the 1770s and 1780s vis-à-vis urban destruction: while investors such as the wealthy banker Laborde—a client of Robert—perceived the destruction as a real-estate opportunity, architectural theorists such as Viel de Saint-Maux, author of Lettres sur l’architecture des anciens et celle des modernes (1787), condemned the investors’ “manie de bâtir,” that is, “the encroachment of the market economy into the domain of architecture” (78). Dubin’s reading of Robert’s paintings reveals the artist’s nuanced response to these competing views. On the one hand, paintings such as The Fire at the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, 1772 (1773) acknowledge the need for urban reform as the hospital of the Hôtel-Dieu was known for its insalubrity. On the other hand, this painting evidences the commodification of Paris as urban transformations were launched for their potential financial returns, without any reverence for the past. In fact, as Dubin remarks, the discovery of the annihilated antique cities of Herculaneum in 1737 and Pompeii in 1748 reinforced the perception that Antiquity itself was not eternal. This frightening yet exhilarating realization is conveyed by Robert in his paintings of urban disasters through his sublime pictorial language.

At the center of chapter 3, “anti-edifice,” are paintings that Robert made in connection with a major Parisian urban project from the late 1780s: the demolition of the houses on the bridges of the Seine, aimed at improving circulation in the city. As in the previous chapter, Dubin emphasizes the double dynamic at play in Robert’s paintings; while they show some affinity with Voltaire’s argument that, “the magnificence of a city was no longer perceived to reside solely in its monuments but rather in its overall structure” (113), as he argued in Des embellissements de Paris (1749), they also hint at the social and patrimonial drawbacks of the demolition of the houses, including the displacement of populations and the relocation of monumental sculptures that decorated the bridges. Robert’s artistic ambivalence vis-à-vis these issues is symptomatic of the resistance to interpretation that characterizes his oeuvre as a whole. In this context, Dubin, instead of ascribing definitive meaning to the paintings, concentrates her efforts on recovering their historical specificity.

Chapter 4, “Posterity,” which focuses on Robert’s 1796 pendants Project for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre and Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins, discusses further the issue of displacement. The pendants, which relate to the newly created Louvre Museum, are analyzed in relation to a pamphlet known as Lettres à Miranda. Published in 1796 by the theorist and archaeologist Quatremère de Quincy, Lettres à Miranda condemned the displacement of artworks from Rome to the Louvre Museum undertaken in the aftermath of Bonaparte’s victorious Italian campaign. Dubin’s scrupulous research—including her reference to a letter Robert wrote on February 13, 1797, to the Institut in which he obliquely questions the display of the Apollo Belvedere in the Louvre’s galleries (a sculpture he depicts in Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins)—allows her to conclude that, “it is difficult to avoid perceiving in Robert’s gallery signs of doubt about France’s entitlement to the [Roman] culture it believed itself to have inherited” (158), that is, that the painter ultimately shared Quatremère’s views. While this claim is convincingly argued, one wishes that Dubin had addressed in more detail the political ramifications of Robert’s pendants. The opening of the Louvre Museum in 1793 was a key factor in the French Revolution’s educational and cultural purpose. Therefore, depicting the Louvre in its new function of museum in the midst of the French Revolution was a politicized gesture.

Futures and Ruins, filled with dazzling color illustrations (so dazzling that those who have seen Robert’s paintings in person may be surprised by the degree of contrast in the illustrations), is a study in social art history that reveals a strong methodological affinity with T. J. Clark’s work on the relation between painting, Paris, and economics in the nineteenth century. Adapting Clark’s model to the eighteenth-century context, the book implicitly argues that the destabilizing impact of capital on the fabric of the city signals the emergence of a self-consciously modern painting in the eighteenth rather than nineteenth century. In other words, Futures and Ruins has the considerable merit of revealing Robert’s modernity. This is a much needed task since to date, Robert, because “he thoroughly lacked Piranesi’s intensity, Watteau’s melancholy, Greuze’s angst, and, of course, David’s gravitas,” as Dubin observes (3), has been the object of little critical attention.1 Futures and Ruins, which will interest art historians including specialists of architecture as it includes compelling visual analyses of Robert’s canvases but ultimately discusses architecture as much as painting, thus helps fill a major art-historical lacuna.

Frédérique Baumgartner
Lecturer and Director of MA in Art History, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

1 Except for Paula Rea Radisich’s monograph, Hubert Robert: Painted Spaces of the Enlightenment (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), which examines Robert’s commissions from four leading patrons in relation to the notion of la vie privée, the bulk of the literature on Robert was produced between the late 1970s and late 1980s by the art dealer Jean de Cayeux. De Cayeux’s research nevertheless remains an important contribution as far as Robert’s work as a draughtsman and as a garden designer is concerned (Les Hubert Robert de la Collection Veyrenc au Musée de Valence, Valence: Musée de Valence, 1985; Hubert Robert et les jardins, Paris: Herscher, 1987). Furthermore, his biography of the artist remains a very useful source for appreciating the breadth of Robert’s career—on top of his activity as a painter, the artist held the official positions of Jardinier du roi and Garde des tableaux du roi—and for assessing the scope of his social network (Hubert Robert 1733–1808, Paris: Fayard, 1989, in collaboration with Catherine Boulot).