Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 14, 1999
Paula Rea Radisich Hubert Robert: Painted Spaces of the Enlightenment New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 207 pp.; 69 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0521593514)

One of the salient features of eighteenth-century art that has historically inhibited its incorporation into the canonical curriculum of art history is its resistance to stylistic categorization and the lack of a period designation such as Renaissance, Baroque, or Modern. And even within the field of eighteenth-century visual culture, some artists are more “canonical” than others because they can be made to fit into such existing stylistic categories as Rococo and Neoclassical. The immensely talented and productive painter Hubert Robert has been relatively neglected in recent studies of French painting of the Ancien Régime, partly because he, like the century of which he was a part, stands outside existing stylistic labels. Paula Radisich’s book is a long-awaited and fundamentally important contribution to our understanding of a painter who clearly functioned at the apex of the cultural and social pyramid of eighteenth-century French society. Far from attempting to invent some new label for Robert’s highly personal style, the author instead focuses intelligently on the relationship of certain groups of Robert paintings to the sites for which they were intended, establishing a visual and cultural exchange among patrons, the artist, the painted subjects, and their audience. This approach, which Radisich grounds in both interdisciplinary research and the sociology of art, should serve as a model for reconstructing the context of much eighteenth-century art. By insisting on the notion of “sociability” instead of stylistic labels that are doomed to inadequacy, Radisich tells us many important things not only about the artist and his works but about his patrons and the society in which he lived.

The book is divided into four core chapters preceded by a general introduction devoted to what Radisich designates la vie privée. The introduction states that her major interest in Robert is not his record of Salon exhibition pieces but rather his work for private patrons and the social context of display. Given the negative evaluation of such crucial concepts as luxury, libertinage, and decoration in the Salon criticism of Denis Diderot, Radisich rightly points out that a different emphasis is needed in order to reconsider Robert in a positive manner. Radisich presents a compelling case for Robert as an artist par excellence of the private, domestic sphere. This fascinating study of Hubert Robert will hopefully encourage scholars to revisit other late Ancien Régime artists usually dismissed as merely decorative. Lagrenée and Clodion come immediately to mind.

Chapter 2, “Making Conversation: Hubert Robert in the Salon of Madame Geoffrin,” sets the tone for the entire book by closely examining the relationship between Geoffrin and the numerous artists (such as Boucher and Vien, among others) who frequented her Monday soirées that were famous throughout Europe. Robert painted five pictures for Geoffrin, three of them large outdoor conversation pieces that document her association with the aristocratic Abbey of Saint-Antoine in the suburbs of Paris. These pictures are painstakingly scrutinized not only as a type of painting with both English and Rococo associations but also as vital documents to Geoffrin’s personal interests and strategies of self-presentation. By underscoring the quiet piety that characterized Geoffrin’s later years, Radisich nuances the general assumption of anticlerical attitudes among those of Enlightenment intellectual sympathies. Indeed, many European intellectuals saw no inherent contradiction between faith and reason. What they objected to was obscurantism and religious fanaticism.

In Chapter 3, “Sanctifying Circulation: Hubert Robert in the Archiepiscopal Palace of Rouen,” Radisich investigates a different form of Enlightenment space. As a area of the archbishop’s palace that had both public and private functions, Robert was challenged in the commission to balance the demand for private delectation with the political agenda of the Archbishop of Rouen, Dominique de la Rochefoucauld, the head of whose family was an habitué of Madame Geoffrin’s salon in Paris. The four large paintings in the Salle des Etats are essentially view paintings of locations important to the history and archiepiscopal authority of Rouen, a see long held by members of the ultra-aristocratic Rochefoucauld family. The view of the château de Chaillon, the summer retreat of the archbishops, is rather traditional and contrasts strongly with the more ambitious views of the cities of Rouen, Dieppe and Le Havre. Radisich rightly sees a tension between the artist and patron in terms of proprietorship; the view created by the artist, who is shown inhabiting the space, depicts locations over which the archbishop claimed at least spiritual obedience. Moreover, the commercial prowess of all three port cities, thriving on the luxury trades, ran afoul of traditional Catholic teachings about the evils of materialism. This development brilliantly illuminates one of the chief dilemmas of eighteenth-century Catholic ideology when confronted by early capitalist realities.

By far the most entertaining section of the book is Chapter 4, “Performing the Libertine: Hubert Robert in the Bagatelle.” Robert’s contribution to the Bagatelle, a charmingly self-indulgent petit maison constructed for Louis XVI’s brother, the comte d’Artois, was six large landscape paintings. Fantastic, inventive, and evocative, these caprices struck the perfect tone for the salle des bains in the pavilion, which was designed by the architect François-Joseph Belanger. Although painted for a private setting, the paintings are correctly seen as integrative elements between the interior of the pavilion and the erotic possibilities present outside in the large English-style garden, an arrangement related to, and possibly influenced by, Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s ill-fated Progress of Love series painted for Madame du Barry’s elegant petit maison at Louveciennes. Radisich identifies sources for Robert’s conception in Watteau’s Rococo fête galant, but I think the influence of the celebrated Italian view painter Gianpaolo Panini is also much in evidence, above all in The Fountain and Wandering Minstrels.

The final chapter, “Dining Amid the Ruins: Hubert Robert’s Les Monuments de la France,” considers the commission to Robert for four paintings of celebrated ancient Roman antiquities to adorn the walls of the new dining room of the royal château de Fontainebleau from the arts czar of France under Louis XVI, the comte d’Angiviller. Two of these ruin paintings, which are closely related to similar works by such Italian artists as Panini and Guardi, are among Hubert Robert’s best-known works: Le Pont du Gard and Interior of the Temple of Diana at Nîmes. Radisich refutes the traditional connection of this series to both Vernet’s famous Ports of France and to Charles-Louis Clérisseau’s Antiquités de La France, and we may hope this error may now be put to rest. Radisich’s identification of a royalist political dimension for the commission is absolutely convincing. Painted at a moment (1787) when the court was in a bitter struggle for authority with the parlement law courts, Robert’s ruins directly connect the Bourbon dynasty to its ancient, imperial Roman roots, as opposed to the Frankish councils of chieftains touted by the parlementaires as the historical touchstone of French liberties. Conceived neither as topographical nor antiquarian in character, Robert’s Fontainebleau canvases have a haunting, lyrical quality that resembles Panini but has something of the ethos of Piranesi. Panini as an influence on Robert should be more seriously considered. Panini, the brother-in-law of the Director of the French Academy in Rome, Nicolas Vlueghels, was Professor of Perspective at the royal institution in the Palazzo Mancini and was one of the few contemporary Roman artists whose work was avidly collected by French patrons and Grand Tourists.

Radisich’s excellent book concludes with a thoughtful coda titled “Hubert Robert and the Revolution.” Its brevity leaves the reader a bit disappointed and wanting to know more, although it is undeniably another book project in and of itself. Centered on Robert’s incarceration during the last days of the Terror, Radisich points to this uncertain period as profoundly reformative, in the artistic and psychological sense, for the last years of Robert’s professional activity. The enigmatic Young Girls Dancing around an Obelisk painted in 1798, along with the celebrated Grand Gallery of the Louvre pendants, are identified as political and cultural metaphors of alienation and ambiguity, and the author rightly declines to discuss them in specific terms. Still, these works resonate with a sense of catastrophic devastation that must visualize the profoundly troubled state of mind the disintegration of the Enlightenment posed to an artist of Hubert Robert’s sensibilities. Radisich sagely concludes that the ruin of the cosmopolitan, cultivated and civilized world of the Enlightenment is proclaimed in Young Girls Dancing around an Obelisk. Possibly inspired by Bonaparte’s imperialist ambitions in Egypt, the new world order of Napoleonic nationalism and military adventurism are not far behind.

Christopher Johns
S, University of Virginia