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Garden Theory and the French Picturesque

Posted On July 26, 2017 | 14:42 pm | by Press | Permalink
Bliss Symposium Award Recipients Cabelle Ahn and Carlo Urmy Reflect on the Garden and Landscape Studies Colloquium on Hubert Robert

The Bliss Symposium Awards provide Harvard graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to travel to Dumbarton Oaks and participate in the annual symposia or colloquia in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian Studies. Two recent award recipients, Cabelle Ahn and Carlo Urmy, attended the Garden and Landscape Studies colloquium on “Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture,” which took place on September 27. They reflect on the colloquium and their visit to Dumbarton Oaks below.

Cabelle Ahn

PhD candidate, History of Art and Architecture

Cabelle Ahn

The colloquium was an invigorating addition to the recent exhibition on Hubert Robert at the National Gallery of Art. The talks were as diverse as Robert’s own artistic practices, and the speakers illuminated Robert’s multifaceted engagement with history, antiquities, and landscape and garden design. The speakers simultaneously explored and expanded the boundaries of the French picturesque, a term mostly associated with English gardens except for Claude-Henri Watelet’s Essai sur Jardins (1774). Joseph Disponzio contextualized Robert’s work within eighteenth-century continental picturesque garden theories, and Gabriel Wick highlighted Robert’s sequencing of natural spaces in relation to eighteenth-century antiquarianism. John Pinto additionally located Robert’s artistic activities alongside those of his contemporaries in the historic and ruinous environs of Rome. Other speakers introduced refreshing approaches to Robert’s projects: Susan Taylor-Leduc reconsidered rocks as a medium that intimated the temporality of sculpture, and Elizabeth Hyde undertook a close analysis of the inventory of plants in the royal gardens. Sarah Catala’s talk on Robert’s drawings in relation to women amateurs was particularly fruitful for my own research on eighteenth-century French drawings. For me, it was an immensely productive day that reframed my experience of Robert’s oeuvre. The conference offered tantalizing glimpses into novel approaches to the art of Hubert Robert and eighteenth-century French visual culture.

Carlo Urmy

MLA candidate, Graduate School of Design

Carlo Urmy

I was honored to be able to attend the special colloquium on the work of Hubert Robert, in conjunction with the exhibition of his work at the National Gallery. The assembled panelists presented a number of interesting perspectives of Robert’s work, particularly in relation to his involvement in garden design and improvement projects. As an aspiring landscape architect with a background in art history, this conversation was of particular interest to me, with many of the speakers discussing—and at times complicating—the relationship between picturesque painting and the developing field of landscape architecture.  Joseph Disponzio’s talk on the relationship between Robert and Jean-Marie Morel was particularly illuminating on this subject, as were John Pinto’s discussion of Robert’s relationship to ruins and Elizabeth Hyde’s talk on eighteenth-century French horticulture. The closing conversation attempted to find commonalities and connections between the growing scientific understanding visible in the work of Morel and the historicist themes in Robert’s paintings and garden designs.

Beyond the subject matter addressed in the colloquium itself, it was a distinct pleasure to make my first visit to Dumbarton Oaks. I was struck by the wide variety of disciplines and methods encompassed within the department of Garden and Landscape Studies, which speaks to the depth and relevance of the field itself. And while I wasn’t able to visit the museum or main house, it was amazing to be able to spend even an hour in Farrand’s gardens, and I hope to return very soon.