As French President Emmanuel Macron unwaveringly pushes forward his plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, French cities are erupting with increasingly violent protests. Yesterday, March 23, more than a million people took to the streets to reaffirm their opposition to the unpopular reform. Strikes are upending travel and protesters are furthering the chaos by blocking train stations, airports, refineries, and ports. In Paris, sanitation workers are refusing to clear the mounting piles of trash, especially in front of some of the city’s chichiest establishments.
Political pundits, commentators, and cartoonists compare the situation to the end of democracy with the people’s unrest not unlike that which existed prior to the French Revolution. While these might be wild exaggerations, to travelers and tourists, France at this moment feels like a land of uncertainty. In that light, I thought it would be interesting to look back at a series of paintings that were produced by one of the 18th century’s greatest artists, Hubert Robert. In the immediate aftermath of the Reign of Terror—when France’s stability was hanging by a thread—Robert chose to depict the Grande Gallerie of the Louvre in ruins.
The Romance of Decline
Hubert Robert was born in 1733 to a family of wealthy Parisians. As a young man, he studied sculpture and painting at some of the finest art institutions in France and Italy. Robert belonged to a circle of young artists that enjoyed producing works of capriccio—idealized landscapes featuring architectural fantasies and archaeological ruins. By the time he was 34, Robert was invited to exhibit his work at the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Robert’s debut at the prestigious exposition was a sensation. In attendance was Denis Diderot who, in a review of Robert’s work, wrote:
« Les idées que les ruines réveillent en moi sont grandes, tout s’anéantit, tout périt, tout passe. Il n’y a que le monde qui reste. Il n’y a que le temps qui dure. »
“The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand, everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes. Only the world remains. Only time endures.”Denis Diderot
In the Good Graces of the King
Having made a name for himself, Robert quickly attracted a lucrative clientele for his paintings and drawings, which often incorporated grand architectural structures in ruins. A further sign of success came when other prominent members of the Académie began imitating Robert’s style and subject matter. In 1778, King Louis XVI appointed Robert to the position of Dessinateur des Jardins du Roi, followed by Garde des Tableaux du Rois, and Garde du Museum et Conseiller à l’Académie.
An early assignment involved working with Marie Antoinette‘s favorite architect, Richard Mique, in designing the queen’s rustic hamlet close to her palace in Versailles, Le Petit Trianon. Having close ties to the French royal family at the end of the 18th century, however, proved perilous.
In 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, just days after the queen’s execution, Robert was arrested and thrown in prison. The prolific artist, however, made the most of his hard time producing numerous drawings and at least 53 paintings during his 10 months of captivity. He was freed shortly after the fall of Robespierre but according to The History of Paris, by Héron de Villefosse, Robert was originally sentenced to be executed. He only survived after a mixup when another prisoner with a similar name was sent to the guillotine instead.
Stories through Art
In 1795, Robert resumed his former position as custodian of the Museum—the first part of the Louvre to open to the public. Until his retirement in 1802, Robert’s works often featured this massive gallery, measuring 13m (33ft) wide, and 460m (1500ft) long. His canvases served many purposes. They documented the gallery as it really was, they projected Robert’s plans for renovation, and they portrayed an ominous destiny where the gallery had fallen into ruin.
After more than two centuries as a royal palace, the Grande Galerie of the Louvre became a public museum.
Robert’s innovative plan to seal off the massive windows that once graced the walls of the Grande Galerie and add skylights to illuminate the art was realized between 1805 and 1810. Unfortunately, Robert died in 1808, so never saw his vision fully realized. Today, the Grande Galerie still retains these ambitious improvements.
Robert’s romantic ingenuity and virtuosity make him one of the preeminent painters of the 18th century. I find these depictions of the Louvre in decay particularly captivating. Thankfully, the French have been excellent custodians of their glorious past. As today’s aggrieved protestors resort to setting fires and destroying property, let’s hope that scenes resembling Robert’s ideations of the Louvre in ruins remain in the realm of fantasy for many centuries to come.
For some modern-day depictions of a fantasized version of the Louvre, check my post Visiting the Louvre through the Eyes of Outstanding Cartoonists.