Anger in the Streets and Hubert Robert’s Imagined Ruins

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.

Hubert Robert portrait by Vigée-Lebrun
Portrait of Hubert Robert, by Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun (1788)

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
Arch of Titus in Rome by Robert
Arch of Titus in Rome, by Hubert Robert (1760s)

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.

The Artist in His Cell by Robert
The Artist in His Cell, by Hubert Robert (1793)

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.

Grande Gallerie Upon Opening by Robert
The Grande Gallerie of the Louvre Upon Opening, by Hubert Robert (circa 1795)

After more than two centuries as a royal palace, the Grande Galerie of the Louvre became a public museum.

Projected Improvements by Robert
Projected Improvements to the Grande Gallerie of the Louvre, by Hubert Robert (1796)

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.

Grande Gallerie in Ruins by Robert
The Grande Gallerie of the Louvre in Ruins, by Hubert Robert (1796)
Grande Galerie in Ruins by Robert
Imagined Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins, by Hubert Robert
Ruins of the Louvre by Robert
The Luxor Obelisk Seen from the Ruins of the Grande Galerie, by Hubert Robert

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.

Une Pause

In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing some traveling, much of it in France. It will be interesting to witness firsthand what the current climate brings. If I get a chance, I’ll try to post an update. Thanks for reading.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

16 Comments

  1. Belle recherche, Carol ❣️
    Je me demande ce que tu vas trouver en France . Bon voyage❣️

  2. Thank you for such a wonderful post. Hubert Robert was an amazing artist! I will never forget seeing the Hamlet for the first time. I felt as if I were walking around inside a Robert painting! It was so magical. Only later did I find out he designed the landscape himself.
    Although Robert is traditionally firmly situated in the Rococo, he does anticipate certain ideals of Neoclassicism. During Robert’s time it was said that one of the highest praises one could give a contemporary work of architecture was that « it would make a good ruin. » His viewing the Louvre as a ruin indicated his appreciation of Classic French architecture.

  3. Fascinating that he chose to depict these great structures in a ruined state which existed only in his imagination. It’s a strangely modern sensibility, perhaps a foretaste of the modern genre of post-apocalyptic fantasy.

    He only survived after a mixup when another prisoner with a similar name was sent to the guillotine instead.

    Jeez, imagine being that guy — beheaded by mistake because he had a similar name to the guy they actually wanted to kill. Well, that’s bureaucratic incompetence for you, I guess.

    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

    I wouldn’t worry. The French have a vigorous history of taking to the streets to defend their rights, but I’ve never heard of the national cultural treasures coming under attack. If the previously-peaceful protests turned violent this week, well, Macron’s 49.3 maneuver was an unprecedented provocation, and the mass anger is to be expected. Hopefully that anger will be directed only at its rightful target.

    • Yes! The guillotine story is horrifying. I feel like I’ve read about something similar happening in French history but don’t recall when or who was involved. It makes me wonder, however, whether Robert had friends (or payoffs) in high places that put someone else to death in an effort to delay Robert’s execution.

      Almost all of the demonstrations are peaceful but you are probably aware of the Black Bloc faction which has a penchant for turning protests into riots. There are few who appreciate their tactics—on both sides of the issue.

      • Protests have not been peaceful. There is too much resentment, even hatred accumulated… And a fringe (blackblocs, zadistes…) that are extremely violent. Mélenchon is a big fan of Robespierre. And his people are pushing underneath. Le mythe du “Grand soir” et de la Révolution triomphante… Sad times…
        As I mention in a previous reply you should be fine. Just stay away from the main axes of protest. République, Nation, etc… Again they’re announced in advance…
        Au revoir et bon voyage…

  4. Your comments about Robert are almost without context, which should at least include the many works depicting ancient Roman ruins by Piranesi, the pre-eminent artist working in this vein, and the obvious deep influence on Robert of Lorrain.

  5. An interesting juxtaposition with contemporary France. Robert’s work is extraordinary, and I find your conjectures about how he escaped the guillotine plausible. As for the present, I’m assuming if there were efforts by the Black Bloc or others to attack France’s cultural treasures, the authorities would ward them off.

    Bon voyage! We’ll look forward to some fascinating new posts when you return.

    • I’ve been here for a week now Annie. There was a significant protest and strike a few days ago. I was planning to swing by and get a few photos but ended up in an exhibit that I didn’t want to leave. The place is so walkable that I was easily able to avoid the Metro, although most trains were still running so transportation of any form probably wouldn’t have been a problem. At the moment, no further strikes are planned.

  6. Très intéressant “Carole”. I’d never heard of Hubert Robert… merci.
    Travelling there now? Hmmm.
    If you stay away from the protests, which are generally announced in advance you should be fine. Just the sorry visions of garbage everywhere…
    Enjoy your time…
    Bises

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