Remarkably unrecorded in the artist’s lifetime, Hubert Robert’s The Canal and The Cascade evoke memories of the painter’s decade-long stay in Rome.
Born in Paris in 1733, Robert travelled to Italy in 1754, taking up an official residency at the French Academy in Rome. When this residency came to an end, he stayed, touring the country to visit the ruins of Pompeii, the Renaissance gardens at the Villa d’Este, and the volcanic hills around Caprarola.
By 1774, when The Canal and The Cascade were painted, Robert had been back in his native Paris for nine years. Fittingly, the works appear to depict a conglomeration of French and Italian sites, recalled from memory and shaped into a picturesque whole.
Christie’s specialist Alan Wintermute explains: ‘While Robert was often inspired by real places, he rarely reproduced them with topographical accuracy; usually, he skewed them a bit, reinventing them — at least slightly — to fit his fancy. The Cascade almost certainly does not depict a real site, but elicits the great falls at Tivoli, outside Rome, that Robert drew and painted many times.’
If The Cascade reflects memories of Italy, The Canal seems to suggest the countryside around Paris. Wintermute says, ‘When that painting was exhibited in Paris in 1922 it was thought to depict a canal in the gardens of the Château of Rambouillet.’
Yet Robert’s inspiration was not entirely geographical: after showing works at the Paris Salon in 1867, Robert’s ability to draw figures was attacked by philosopher Diderot. Apparently stung by this critique, Robert went on to study figures by the painter François Boucher, whose influence can be seen in a number of the artist’s works from the period.
As Wintermute notes, ‘Few painters in the history of European art were as capable of presenting the grandeur and sublimity of nature as Robert.’