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Contextualizing Robert

Posted On January 06, 2017 | 16:14 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
Garden and Landscape Studies 2016 Colloquium on Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture

On Tuesday, September 27, the Garden and Landscape Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, held its annual fall colloquium. Entitled “Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture,” the colloquium, which featured six speakers, sought to examine the artistic and cultural contexts of the French painter and landscape designer’s work. The colloquium was held in conjunction with the exhibition Hubert Robert, 1733–1808, on view at the National Gallery from June 26 to October 2. (Dumbarton Oaks has a set of four pendant paintings by Robert.)

After brief welcoming remarks from John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Therese O’Malley, associate dean of the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, spoke of the long history of collaboration between the National Gallery and Dumbarton Oaks, and cited the current colloquium as a welcome effort to revivify relations between the institutions.

Sarah Catalla, a PhD candidate in art history at the Université Lille III and a Mellon Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, began the day’s presentations by examining a lesser-known aspect of Robert’s work. Her talk, “Hubert Robert and the Amateurs: From ‘Educating the Eye’ to Composing the Landscape,” sought to foreground Robert’s time as an instructor of drawing to aristocratic amateurs.

In the course of her talk, she suggested not only that this endeavor helped, in a professional sense, to secure Robert connections with wealthy patrons, but also that it molded his understanding of the potentialities of the picturesque style and helped to shape his latter-day style.

Drawing on a rich corpus of sketches and drawings, Catalla discussed how the practices of teaching, touring, and sketching were linked with the evolution of Robert’s garden interventions.  She limned the amateur milieu prevailing at the time—in which the work of women amateurs was granted equal value—and raised settings and themes that would recur throughout the day, including the Tour de Guy at La Roche-Guyon, an important site in Robert’s career as landscape designer.

Dovetailing with the theme of an amateur milieu, Gabriel Wick’s presentation, “Between Artifact and Artifice: Hubert Robert and the Mise-en-Scène of History in the Aristocratic Garden,” charted Robert’s development during a period in which he helped to compose a series of landscape gardens for aristocratic amateurs.

At the outset of his presentation, Wick, a PhD candidate in history and cultural geography at University of London, Queen Mary, attempted to parse the precise nature of Robert’s involvement in the design of several landmark sites: Ermenonville, La Roche-Guyon, Betz, and La Chapelle-Godefroy. This is a difficult task, as Robert rarely worked alone, but often undertook his interventions with others, including, in one instance, a team of antiquarians and theorists.

Engaging in his own theoretical discussion, Wick went underground in an effort to explore Robert’s construction of false historical palimpsests. Highlighting the underground passageway, implemented by Robert, that connected the Tour de Guy with the main estate at La Roche-Guyon, Wick suggested that the motif of underground passageways was a significant one for Robert. Like the passageway at La Roche-Guyon, the series of grotto chambers implemented at Méréville implied a historical narrative of great age in the grounds.

Describing Robert as a “specialist in distressing and displacing,” Wick explained that in constructing simulacra of age for aristocrats, Robert helped them to reinforce their historical lineage, putting the landscape garden to sociopolitical use.  

A theme that quickly emerged from the day’s proceedings was the difficulty of classifying Robert’s work as a landscape designer, a thread taken up by Joseph Disponzio in his presentation, “Neither Painter nor Gardener Be: Hubert Robert and Eighteenth-Century French Picturesque Garden Theory.”

After a brief sketch of perceptions of Robert’s work throughout the years, leading all the way up to the twentieth century, Disponzio, a preservation landscape architect with New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, segued into an analysis of Robert’s anomalous position with regard to French picturesque garden theory. 

Despite the majority of his design work taking place after an explosion of theoretical texts in the 1770s, Robert’s efforts were nevertheless at odds with the dominant theories expounded by these tracts, which posited that landscape design and landscape painting were not, in fact, twinned arts, but were instead deeply at odds with one another.

Analyzing Robert’s design work through the lens of its conflict with theory, Disponzio’s talk presented a picture of a well-admired designer who nevertheless stood apart from many picturesque trends. Though it is often easy to classify his work as falling within the French picturesque, Disponzio contended that he was an artist whose approach to garden design was always, first and foremost, through the canvas.

If, during his lifetime, Robert often seemed misplaced in his theories and vocations, it was a theme that carried through to the appointments he received, as Susan Taylor-Leduc, dean of Parsons Paris, the European campus of the New School, explained in her talk, “Designing in Rock: Hubert Robert and the Politics of the French Picturesque.”

When, in 1778, Robert accepted the title of Dessinateur des Jardins du Roi from the French monarchy, he filled a vacancy left by the famed formalist Le Nôtre in 1700—a designer with views nearly antipodal to his own.

Setting out to elucidate the subtle political messages encoded in Robert’s work for the French monarchy—that is, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—Taylor-Leduc’s talk primarily traced Robert’s work with stone. Though the Baths of Apollo, situated at Versailles, were considered a failure by contemporary critics, Taylor-Leduc identifies the display as a node of political allegory, in which the transmutability of stone, embodied in the contrast between natural rock and statuary, played an important role.

Elizabeth Hyde, an associate professor and assistant chair in the department of history at Kean University, went on to develop similar themes in her presentation, “‘Such Things as Would Enrich France,’ or Planting the Eighteenth-Century French Garden.” Focusing on Robert’s use of foliage in his designs, Hyde emphasized early on that though Robert demonstrated little knowledge of plant life itself—his depictions in his paintings often lack any botanical precision—plantations were nevertheless key to the political messages his work evinced.

Commissioned to record in painting the replanting of the gardens of Versailles, Robert’s depictions of the felling of barren and frequently lopsided trees corresponded to his use of overgrown vegetation in his famous capricci. For Hyde, these depictions display a political consciousness to Robert’s work; as she suggested, the decaying foliage Robert painted seemed to embody a starkly linear conception of time that contrasted sharply with the cyclical time—or rather timelessness—redolent of the age of the Sun King.

The French picturesque, as Hyde suggested, sought to evince the twinned concepts of renewal and timelessness, and, in order to do this, gardeners had to reach beyond the borders of their own state. Hyde detailed the far-flung botanizing missions undertaken by royal gardeners in this period, an expeditionary effort perhaps epitomized by the botanist André Michaux, who established botanical gardens in what are now New Jersey and South Carolina.

In concluding the colloquium, John Pinto, emeritus professor in the history of architecture at Princeton University, returned to the heart of Robert’s fame in a presentation aptly titled “Robert des Ruines: Landscape and Antiquity.” Echoing Catalla’s presentation, Pinto emphasized Robert’s time in Italy (1754–65) and the sketchbooks he completed there—which Robert referred to as promenades—in the development of Robert’s later aesthetic.

Presenting the painter’s Italian years as an apprenticeship of sorts, when Robert interacted with contemporaries like Gian Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Pinto compared Robert’s work to that of his contemporaries. Piranesi’s depictions were darker, of course, though Robert’s interest in “the tenebrous interiors of imaginary ruins” and his belief in the expressive nature of ruins could be traced to the Italian artist’s influence.

Though Robert’s painting is inventive and oftentimes fantastical in its blending of settings and transposing of monuments, Pinto made a point of emphasizing, through a series of anecdotes, Robert’s physical engagement with his subjects. Robert, accompanied by a coterie of fellow painters, was said to have once thrown an apple over a barren arch and, charging through the connecting ruins, to have caught it on the tip of a penknife.

In his spry youth, he was also known to climb the fading monuments he encountered, shimmying up columns and resting at perilous heights—an experience curiously echoed by his painting L’Accident. On the canvas a yearning suitor, having gathered a bouquet from atop a decayed temple, falls through the air, betrayed by a crumbling capital—and the somber ache of ruins is made tragically manifest.