The Ruins and The Old Bridge embody the aesthetic and philosophical impulses that shaped Hubert Robert's artistic vision throughout his career, contrasting an almost fantastical view of the imposing Imperial remains of ancient Rome with an inviting and modest river scene set somewhere in the countryside around the Ile-de-France. Employing his characteristic bright, pleasing palette; fluent, sketchy paint handling; and ingenious sense of design, Robert created captivating compositions which invite the attentive viewer to meditate on the relationship of man to nature and the transience of human existence without sacrificing the humor, charm or decorative appeal that were the hallmarks of his work.
In The Ruins, a pretty peasant girl mounted side-saddle on a pack-mule and a young man on horseback with dead game in his bag ride up a narrow path. On one side of the sun-baked path is a great Roman colonnade overgrown with weeds and tendrils; on the other, a broken marble column base and an ancient stone tablet, discarded and overturned, which the man points to, drawing the attention of his companion. In their wake, cattle graze amid a cloud of dust. (In a witty touch, Robert signed and dated his painting on a stone slab in imitation of an antique inscription, and included the letters 'QR' to indicate the 'SPQR'--Senatus Populous que Romanus--that was the motto of the Roman Republic.) In pointing to the remnants of the once-great civilization of their ancestors, the humble riders evoke the 'sweet melancholy' that the philosophe Denis Diderot (1713-1784) felt in front of another painting of ruins by Robert. 'Our glance lingers over the debris of a triumphal arch, a portico, a pyramid, a temple, a palace, and we retreat into ourselves; we contemplate the ravages of time, and in our imagination we scatter the rubble of the very buildings in which we live over the ground; in that moment solitude and silence prevail around us, we are the sole survivors of an entire nation that is no more' (Diderot, The Salon of 1767, under no. 105).
In The Old Bridge, a young woman seated on a large rock on the banks of a river points to her right, perhaps giving directions to the boy standing behind her, who holds a fishing rod and a basket for the day's catch. Behind them looms an old stone bridge. The center of the bridge has fallen away and been replaced by a wooden railing and ramp, which is supported from beneath by wooden struts. A cowherd on a mule moves a cow and flock of sheep across the bridge, while a standing man in a cloak and large-brimmed hat looks down from the side of the bridge to the figures on the riverbank. The view from beneath the bridge opens onto a deep, winding river panorama, and it is not difficult to interpret the ever-moving path of the water, and the figures passing over it, as emblematic of the passage of life. 'What is my ephemeral existence in comparison with that of a rock being worn down, of a valley being formed?' Diderot asked. 'A torrent drags each and every nation into the depths of a common abyss; myself, I resolve to make a solitary stand at the edge and resist the currents flowing past me' (Salon of 1767, under no. 106).
The tondo format is unusual in Robert's oeuvre, but he employed it with great effectiveness. The circular shape of the canvas is elegantly reprised by the exaggerated curve of the old bridge, and the depth of the river background and low sightline to the underside of the bridge imbues the composition with an almost globular effect. In The Ruins, the high sightlines of the composition and the undulating rise and fall of the road likewise reinforce the sense of roundness in the picture's design.
Despite their exceptional format, and the fact that The Ruins is signed and dated 1777, nothing is known of the commission of the two paintings or their original destination. There is evidence in The Old Bridge that the artist experimented with various iterations of his composition. Numerous pentimenti indicate that Robert was working out aspects of his design directly on the canvas: it is notable that he repositioned the head of the seated girl, while he shifted or entirely removed whole secondary figures from the expanse of the bridge, and changed the arch of the bridge and positioning of the struts. Most apparent is the remarkable presence of a fully articulated male figure beneath the water in the lower right corner of the canvas. This figure, seen from the waist up, has downcast eyes that may be reading a book or paper held in his left hand, while his right arm is extended to take or hold an indecipherable object. As the thinly applied blue and green glazes of the cool water have become more transparent over the years, this figure, who Robert had painted out of his composition, has once again become visible. His illogical presence--beneath the water, fully dressed and at an extreme right angle--indicates that he was a first idea for an altogether different composition that Robert then rejected, turning his canvas somewhat to paint over the figure and start afresh.
The Ruins reveals less experimentation in its genesis, but this might be because its central figural grouping was lifted, more or less wholesale, from a composition by François Boucher (1703-1770). Since Robert's first Salon appearance in 1767, Diderot had been critical of the artist's figure drawing, and Robert, apparently stung by the attacks, had tried to improve this particular skill by studying Boucher's figures, variations of which appear with some frequency in Robert's paintings after that date. Robert had the opportunity to study Boucher's little genre painting The Journey to Market (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA; fig. 1) in Rome in the late 1750s when it was in the collection of his patron, the Bailli de Breteuil. The central figural group in Boucher's picture, depicting a girl riding a donkey followed by a boy on horseback, clearly made a lasting impression on the young student, who first copied it in an ambitious watercolor dated 1760 (sold, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 7 December 1979, lot 6; ill. Ananoff, op.cit., 53/3, fig. 273, p. 189). He repeated the girl riding a mule (without her male companion) in 1773 in a monumental decorative panel, The Return of the Cattle which, with its pendant, The Portico of a Country Mansion near Florence (both, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. 35.40.1 & 35.40.2), was executed for Bergeret de Frouville, Secretaire ordinaire de la Direction des Finances under Louis XVI. As Robert and Boucher are documented as having collaborated on a set of four decorative landscapes for Bergeret's dining room three years earlier (this suite of pictures is lost), Robert may have consciously planned the figures in The Return of the Cattle to harmonize with them. Finally, Robert transformed Boucher's couple into the protagonists of The Ruins in 1777, choosing to reproduce even the grazing cattle that appear behind the couple in Boucher's painting, and diverging from the master's design only in covering the girl's hair with a demure headscarf. Whereas Boucher's riders display slightly vacuous smiles on their faces, Robert imbues his modest couple with traces of awe and curiosity, and even a hint of sadness at the fallen grandeur that surrounds them.
It was Robert's genius for suggesting the inevitability of decay and death in paintings of unflagging wit, beauty and joyousness that so struck his contemporaries and speak to his admirers to this day. 'If Robert's paintings delight the eye by the elegance of his compositions and the delicacy and lightness of his touch,' wrote Charles Lecarpentier in a tribute to the artist after his death in 1808, 'they also fill the soul with a kind of melancholy by leading it through the scattered remains of a long succession of accumulated centuries. To the eyes of one who is meditating, they recall the fact that long ago a living multitude animated these deserted ramparts, that these walls rang unceasingly with the clamor of the arts, with cries of joy, and with the noise of celebrations.'
Mr. Joseph Baillio will include these pictures in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Hubert Robert, being prepared with the assistance of the Wildenstein Institute.