Hubert Robert (22 May 1733– 15 April 1808), French artist, was born in Paris.
His father, Nicolas Robert, was in the service of François-Joseph de Choiseul, marquis de Stainville a leading diplomat from Lorraine. Young Robert finished his studies with the Jesuits at the Collège de Navarre in 1751 and entered the atelier of the sculptor Michel-Ange Slodtz who taught him design and perspective but encouraged him to turn to painting. In 1754 he left for Rome in the train of Étienne-François de Choiseul, son of his father's employer, who had been named French ambassador and would become a Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to Louis XV in 1758.
He spent fully eleven years in Rome, a remarkable length of time; after the young artist's official residence at the French Academy in Rome ran out, he supported himself by works he produced for visiting connoisseurs like the abbé de Saint-Non, who took Robert to Naples in April 1760 to visit the ruins of Pompeii. The marquis de Marigny, director of the Bâtiments du Roi kept abreast of his development in correspondence with Natoire, director of the French Academy, who urged the pensionnaires to sketch out-of-doors, from nature: Robert needed no urging; drawings from his sketchbooks document his travels: Villa d'Este, Caprarola. Robert spent his time in the company of young artists in the circle of Piranesi, whose capricci of romantically overgrown ruins influenced him so greatly that he gained the nickname Robert des ruines. The albums of sketches and drawings he assembled in Rome supplied him with motifs that he worked into paintings throughout his career.
His success on his return to Paris in 1765 was rapid: the following year he was received by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, with a Roman capriccio, The Port of Rome, ornamented with different Monuments of Architecture, Ancient and Modern. Robert's first exhibition at the Salon of 1767 was greeted in print by Denis Diderot, 'The ideas which the ruins awake in me are grand.' He was successively appointed 'Designer of the King's Gardens', Keeper of the King's Pictures' and 'Keeper of the Museum and Councilor to the Academy'.
Robert was arrested in October 1793, during the French Revolution. He survived his detentions at Sainte-Pélagie and Saint-Lazare, by painting vignettes of prison life on plates, before he was freed at the fall of Robespierre. Robert narrowly escaped the guillotine when through error another prisoner died in his place. Subsequently he was placed on the committee of five in charge of the new national museum at the Palais du Louvre.
The Revolution also resulted in the destruction of some of Robert's work. Robert had designed the decorations for a little theatre in the new wing at the location of the current staircase Gabriel in the Palace of Versailles. Designed to seat about 500, this theatre was built from the summer of 1785 and opened in early 1786. It was intended to serve as an ordinary court theatre, replacing the Theatre of the Princes Court which was too old and too small, but was destroyed during the time of Louis Philippe. A watercolour of Robert's design is in the National Archives in Paris.
Enterprising and prolific, Robert also acted in a role similar to that of a modern day art director, conceptualizing fashionably dilapidated gardens for several aristocratic clients, summarized by his possible intervention at Ermenonville; there he would have been working with the architect Morel for the marquis de Girardin, who was the author of Compositions des paysages (1777) and had distinct views of his own. In 1786 he began his better documented collaboration at Méréville, with his most significant patron, the financier Jean-Joseph de Laborde, who found François-Joseph Bélanger's plans too expensive and perhaps too formal. Though documents are again lacking, Hubert Robert's name is invariably invoked in connection with Marie Antoinette's 'premier architecte' Richard Mique through several phases of the creation of an informal landscape garden at the Petit Trianon, and the setting of the 'petit hameau. Robert's contribution to garden design was not in making practical ground plans for improvements but in providing atmospheric inspiration for the proposed effect. At Ermenonville and at Méréville 'Hubert Robert's paintings both recorded and inspired', according to W.H. Adams: Robert's four large ruin fantasies, painted in 178for Méréville may be searched in vain for direct connections with the garden. Hubert's paintings of the Moulin Joly of his friend Claude-Henri Watelet render the fully-grown atmosphere of a garden that had been under way since 1754. His set of six Italianate landscape panels painted for Bagatelle were not the inspiration for the formal turfed parterre set in the thinned woodlands, designed by Bélanger; the later picturesque extensions of Bagatelle were carried out by its Scottish gardener, William Blaikie. Robert's commissioned painting of the long-delayed rejuvenation of the park at Versailles, begun in 1774 with the cutting down of the trees for sale as firewood, is a record of the event, resonant with allegorical meaning. Robert was more certainly responsible for the conception of the grotto and cascades of the 'Baths of Apollo,' tucked within a grove of the chateau's park and built to house François Girardon's celebrated sculpture group Apollo Attended by Nymphs.
He deserves to be remembered not so much for his skill as a painter, but as for the liveliness and point with which he treated the subjects he painted. The contrast between the ruins of ancient Rome and the life of his time excited his keenest interest. The reputation he acquired in Rome, working for a time in the studio of Pannini, whose influence can be seen in the Vue imaginaire de la galerie du Louvre en ruine (illustration).
Along with this incessant activity as an artist, his daring character and many adventures attracted general admiration and sympathy. In the fourth canto of his L'Imagination Jacques Delille celebrated Robert's miraculous escape when lost in the catacombs.
The quantity of his work is immense; the Louvre alone contains nine paintings by his hand and specimens are frequently to be met with in provincial museums and private collections. Robert's work has more or less of that scenic character which justified his selection by Voltaire to paint the decorations of his theatre at Ferney. Robert died of a stroke on 1April 1808.
His work was much engraved by the abbé de Saint-Non, with whom he had visited Naples in the company of Fragonard during his early days; in Italy his work has also been frequently reproduced by Chatelain, Linard, Le Veau, and others.