Hubert Robert (France, 1733–1808)

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Hubert Robert, A Traveller Looking at a Vase in the Garden of the Maronite Convent in Rome (1764), red chalk on ivory laid paper, 50.8 x 39.2 cm. NGC

A man stops to admire a large Roman vase on a decorative pedestal. Around the vase, there are branches, greenery and vestiges of a structure, clearly locating the scene in a garden, with the faint outline of a building in the background. 

This splendid red chalk drawing transports viewers to eighteenth-century Rome—then the cultural centre of Europe, with an unparalleled artistic heritage. This heritage made the Eternal City a favourite destination for artists. It also drew art lovers from across Europe, and even the Americas, many of whom were guided and accompanied by young artists pursuing an artistic education. Most travellers’ itineraries included famous Roman monuments, as well as picturesque but lesser-known sites.

The gentleman in this drawing is no doubt one of the many who came to marvel at Rome’s cultural riches. The vase rises majestically before him in the centre of the composition. Its simple, Classical form and imposing size have drawn his interest, and he appears lost in thought. We might even imagine that he is posing for the artist accompanying him—like a tourist for a friend’s camera—as the somewhat cursory strokes suggest that the image was sketched on the spot. At the bottom of the page, the artist even wrote the name of the site, perhaps creating a souvenir for this particular connoisseur.

The inscription in Italian, agli orti dei maroniti, tells us that this is the garden of the convent of the Maronites, a religious community from Lebanon that had been established in that location since about 1750. Situated on one of Rome’s seven hills (the Esquiline), the garden featured a beautiful panoramic view of the city, overlooking the Coliseum.

The man in the drawing had chosen his guide well: French artist Hubert Robert (1733–1808), who later earned the nickname, Robert des ruines (Robert of the Ruins). By the time the thirty-year-old Robert was escorting this particular traveller around Rome, he was also coming to the end of more than a decade in the city, during which he had gathered an extensive inventory of shapes and motifs, upon which he would later draw during a lengthy career in Paris.

Robert was generally fortunate in the support he received from various patrons and art lovers. One of these—Étienne-François de Choiseul, French ambassador to Rome—used his influence to secure a place for Robert at the Academy in Rome, by paying the Academy a cook’s allowance.

When he returned to France in 1765, Robert’s talent continued to stand him in good stead, and he quickly established himself as one of the country’s best-known artists. Louis XVI also acknowledged Robert’s genius by presenting him with lodgings in the Louvre and naming him Designer of the King’s Gardens and Keeper of the King’s Pictures. He was arrested during the French Revolution, but would narrowly escape the guillotine, going on to serve on the five-man committee in charge of a new national museum in the Palais du Louvre.

Paul Lang, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Canada takes us on a tour of Hubert Robert's masterpiece, The Monuments of Paris, which was on Loan at the Gallery from the Collection Power Corporation du Canada/The Power Corporation of Canada Art Collection until April 30th, 2012.

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