I don’t know how many paintings of Hubert Robert there are at the Louvre, but I have heard someone mentioning two hundred drawings. Prolific. There should be enough for every museum in the country, and many of them do have him; Versailles is one of those provincial places that proudly displays its quota: Two paintings, both are documenting real events from the history of Chateau, one positive — the replanting of the trees, the other negative — the destruction of the Grotto of Tethys and the construction in its place the baths of Apollo. Robert of the Ruins (Robert’s nickname) personally contributed to the latter project by sketching the new style grotto for the old statue of the Sun God in the Company of Nymphs.
On occasions like this it is legitimate to discuss Robert as an architect; but it is not how he is remembered. We remember him as an architect of the imaginary buildings he presented as ruins in his paintings, that is we remember him as an architect of the buildings he destroyed. This is what Diderot has to say about those paintings, “In this sanctuary of devastation, abandoned and void, I turn deaf, I break away from the petty vexations of life, nobody harasses me, nobody cares about my opinion; I can yell, go crazy, cry without consolation.” If Diderot finds anything to criticise in Robert, it’s the occurence of the human efflorescence after the cataclysm.
I beg to differ, probably because the apocalyptic aesthetics has been so abused. Do you hear that hideous noise? It is Hollywood sucking the marrow out of Robert’s bones: they are filming another catastrophe. It is too easy yet so tempting to say that Robert is painting on the eve of the French Revolution, and very soon the palaces will burn and cathedrals fall, as well as those human figures, one after another, circling like leaves — the first ones falling by themselves, the others out of pity, to cover those who had already fallen….
Then zooming in, we cannot ignore the figures of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Princess de Lambale, the kids…