Thursday 28 May 2015

Inside the mind of Robert-François Damiens

Contemporary engraving (Bibl. nat)
Despite  unremitting attempts to unearth a wider conspiracy, his  judges were finally forced to admit that  Robert-François Damiens had acted alone in his ineffectual attempt to stab the King. What was his motivation?  The following is summarised from Dale K. Van's book The Damiens Affair (Princeton University Press, 1984)

There was certainly nothing obvious in Damiens's early life to account for his later dramatic behaviour.  His career was remarkable mainly for its recalcitrant banality.  He had been born in the tiny village of Tieulloy in Artois, the son of a poor labourer called Pierre-Joseph Damiens and his wife Marie Guillemant.  He was thus forty-two years old at the time of his attempt on the King's life, though Damiens himself, like many men of the time, did not know his exact age.  At the time of his arrest he was an unemployed domestic servant of no fixed address.  He had a wife, Elizabeth Molerienne , whom he had married in 1739, and a seventeen year old daughter,as well as a younger brother, also a servant, living in Paris; his aged father and older brother, Antoine-Joseph and a widowed younger sister Catherine remained in Artois, in Saint-Omer.

Following his mother’s death in 1729 the young Damiens had been sent to be raised by his maternal great-uncle, a well-to do grain merchant and cabaret owner  in nearby Béthune.  He had resisted his uncle’s well-meaning attempts to have him educated and subsequently to apprentice him to a local locksmith; he spent a couple of years as an apprentice wig maker or cook, then left Artois for good.  He became servant to a captain in the Swiss regiment and accompanied his master on several campaigns, most notably to the siege of Phillipsburg in 1734.  There is little to substantiate the “official” conclusion that he was unruly from “his tenderest  youth”, still less that he earned himself the epithet of “Robert the devil”.  He himself testified only that he had no taste for study, was possessed of a “youthful levity” and wanted to see the world. 

L'horrible attentat du 5 janvier 1757 Engraving. Château de Versailles
After he contracted a fever at Phillipsburg, he left military life and settled in Paris where he found employment as a domestic servant.  His career was unexceptional, though, in an age when servants were integrated into the household and loyalty expected, he changed masters with discreditable frequency, and attracted criticism for his “impertinances” and “vivacities”. From 1736  to 1739 or 1740 he worked (though not continuously) at the Jesuit College Louis-le-grand in the rue St-Jacques as a [potboy] and lackey.  His final dismissal was blamed on “impertinences he said against the Jesuits”; it probably coincided with his marriage since servants were  normally required to live-in as bachelors.  He appears to have remained on relatively good terms with the Jesuit fathers, particularly Père de Launay who recommended him for a position as late as 1753.  

Engraving by Augustin de Saint-Aubin (Bibl.nat.)
 In the 1740s Damiens went through a rapid catalogue of masters, lasting only a few months with each, punctuated by periods of unemployment. A particular crisis occurred in 1753 and 1754  when he was taken on for two separate periods by Bèze de Lys,a councillor in the parlement of Paris and an ardent Jansenist.  His first engagement was terminated by his master's  imprisonment in the fortress of Pierre-en-Cise in Lyon. Prior to this time there are testimonies to Damiens being a competent and faithful servant; from then on  "impertinences" - implying over-familiarity and rudeness towards his social superiors -  increased. He affected the nickname/pseudonym "Flammand" His family remained loyal, but testified to his erratic behaviour and taste for mystification.  His wife could not even remember with certainty the names of the masters he had served.

On 6th June 1756  Damiens crossed the line into criminality when he stole 240 louis from the last of his masters, the merchant Jean Michel. Up to this point he had no history of theft. Perhaps he was motivated by the financial difficulties of his family in Artois who were engaged in a legal dispute over inheritance at the time.  Certainly he fled  immediately to Saint-Omer where he attempted to lavish money and gifts on his brother and his widowed younger sister.  He is reported to have carried off his brother, a journeyman wool carder, to a local cabaret where began "to spend money as if it were hay". The family,  were having none of it;  informed of the theft, they immediately confronted him.  Damiens went to the apothecary, acquired arsenic and attempted suicide. During the sickness which ensued he constantly refused to restitute the money or to confess to a priest,but railed constantly against the dishonesty and bigotry of the clergy. 
Damien in prison (Bibl.nat)

On July 16th the Châtelet officially ordered Damien's arrest.  Having parted from his brother in Ypres, for the next five months he frittered away his time aimlessly in Flemish and Artesian cabarets and auberges, exhibiting behaviour which today would surely be recognised as psychotic, and which in retrospect was clearly prefigured in his earlier career. He seems to have been tormented by guilt.  He drank heavily, stayed alone in his room, became agitated and upset when approached and on several occasions had himself bled to excess "so the bad blood could get out".  One witness who shared a room with him reported how he had talked to himself the whole night long, and finally barricaded himself in the cellar of a cabaret.  Curiously, the judges placed little emphasis on these evident symptoms of "folly", probably because they were convinced Damiens could not have acted alone and were intent on unravelling a political conspiracy.

In fact, as Dale Van Kley notes, Damiens himself was quite explicit as to his motivation.  Although the judges took little notice, he repeatedly maintained that the reason for his actions was "religion". He claimed, with some plausibility, that his intention had not been to kill the King but to "touch" him and  thereby "prompt him to restore all things to order and tranquility in his States".  He pointed out that he had used a short knife and had made no attempt to repeat his blow.  When asked what he meant by "religion", he explained that the sacraments should not be refused to people who lived holy lives,and coupled this with comments on the poverty and misery of the people. The King should be persuaded "to dispense justice, and cease heeding the pernicious advice of his ministers".  Damiens thus echoed the views of Jansenist magistrates like his former master Bèze de Lys, together with common popular concerns about poverty, taxes and the high price of bread.  Perhaps he formed his "execrable design" in the long hours of waiting for his master in the rooms of the Palais de justice, where he was privy to the loud discourses of "lawyers, councillors and ecclesiastics".   Under torture, he admitted that, when "returning from the Parlement", he had heard a Jansenist remark that, if someone could "hit" the King, the Archbishop of Paris might be prevented from further refusal of sacraments.  Fellow domestics reported he was in the habit of conducting mock trials of the Archbishop. Interest in the religious conflicts of the day were in fact widespread among servants and ordinary people;  lackeys wearing the Archbishop's livery had been so insulted and set upon that they were forced to travel incognito. Damiens stood out mainly in "the degree of his personal and psychotic involvement" (Van Kley, p.).  He reportedly took a keen interest in the unfolding refusal of the sacraments crisis, even during his time on the run in Artois. It would seem he hit upon  the assassination attempt as an expiation for his theft; he would wipe out his personal guilt with a great act of service to the state and "die like Jesus Christ amid pain and torments" (a wish which was amply fulfilled)
In the last days of December Damiens took the mail-coach back to Paris, entering via the barrière Saint-Martin. He made contact with his younger brother and was reunited with his wife, with whom he stayed for a few days in the rue du Cimetière Saint-Nicolas des Champs where she worked as a cook. He left the remainder of the stolen money in a bag in her room where she could find it.  At 11pm on night of January 3rd he boarded a coach to Versailles and the next day found himself a room in an inn on the rue Satory.  On the morning of 5th January, Damiens asked to have himself bled; he left the inn around 10 o'clock in the morning and was noticed at 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon by a guard in the courtyard of the château. The fateful attack on the King took place at 5.45pm.


Dale K. Van Kley The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the Ancien Regime, 1750-1770 Princeton University Press (1984)

Wednesday 27 May 2015

The coat of a regicide

Vêtement du régicide Damiens, 1757,
Paris, Archives nationales
This coat belonged to the would-be regicide Robert-François Damiens, who was spectacularly executed in 1757 following an ineffectual attempt to stab Louis XV with a penknife. It was one of the items included in the exhibition La Bastille ou "l'enfer des vivants" held at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal - home to the archives of the Bastille -  in November 2010-February 2011.  The coat was conserved with the judicial papers relating to Damiens's trial in the Archives judiciaires, once housed in the Palais de Justice and now part of the National Archives.  Lady Morgan saw them on a visit to the Palais in 1829-30:
"Close to the papers of the trial of Damiens, in an old box, was his coat, the coat he wore when he was dragged from his dungeon, to be_______but there is no dwelling on such subjects.  In the same box was the rope by which the Count de _____(I forget the name) escaped the Bastille  What singular relics!"
 France in 1829-30.vol.2, p.56.

Also included in the exhibition were Damien's rosary and a set of four assorted knives belonging to members of his family - who were arrested, interrogated and presently banished, although they could not be implicated in Damien's crime.

Chapelet du régicide Damiens, 1757 Archives nationales

La Bastille ou "l'enfers des vivants" exhibition press release & video:

Virtual visit

Other pictures:

On the archives of the Bastille

The horrible showpiece execution of the pathetic Damiens for the grand crime of lèse-majesté is a dark blot on the "century of light".There is a famous description by Michel Foucault in the opening pages of his Discipline and punish, which you can read if you so wish; here it is in English translation:
"1757: Robert-Francois Damiens, disciplined and punished"  Executed today,  post of March 28th 2008

Here are the wise comments of Professor Jack McManners:
"It is the historian's duty to go back, sympathetically, into the minds of former generations.  But there are areas of their thought where we cannot penetrate except to record without comprehension, areas opaque to our understanding, where sympathy dies.  It is difficult to make the effort of the imagination and accompany the men of the past on their way to a public execution - on the way to the Place de Grève in Paris in 1757, for example, to see Damiens slowly pulled to pieces by horses because he he had lifted his hand against the King.  It is more difficult still to accompany the women of quality who had hired strategic windows for the occasion and, we are told, proved to be less squeamish than the men....Sensitive people were sickened by this ritual of terror.  Louis XV himself was sunk in gloom on the day of the execution, and spent the afternoon praying for his would-be assassin.  The comte Dufort de Ceverny spent the day away from Paris with his wife and two friends (whose names he gives "to pay tribute to their humanity") with instructions that on his return no one should speak of what had happened.  The pious duc de Luynes shuddered at the part he had had to play in the trial and condemnation.  But not one voice was raised to say that Damiens should be executed in a less outrageous fashion." Death and the Enlightenment, 1985 (p.383-4)

Monday 25 May 2015

Hubert Robert - portrait of the artist

Black crayon, heightened with white gouache (32 x 24 cm)
Sgn. At lower right Isabey
I love this drawing by Isabey of Hubert Robert in his sixties, with his fluffy hair and trademark bushy eyebrows. It seems to capture his resilient personality and energy. At least five different versions of the picture are documented and there is an engraving by Simon Charles Miger dating from 1799. This drawing, from the New York collection of Roberta J. M. Olson and Alexander B.V. Johnson, is possibly the original which belonged to Robert himself. (According to the inventory drawn up after his wife's death, Robert owned not only the painting but Miger's copperplate and twenty impressions of  his print).

Isabey was a personal friend of Robert's. He recorded meeting him for the first time at Versailles in 1787: "From that time dates my intimacy with Robert, painter of landscape, man of talent and resources".  He later worked under him at the château de Beauregard.  In 1798 Isabey was granted lodgings at the Louvre and became Robert's neighbour, so the portrait presumably dates from about that time.  It may be compared with two earlier likenesses of a younger, more powerful-looking Robert exhibited at the Salon of 1789 - the portrait by  Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun in the Louvre (left) and a sculpture by Pajou.


"Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Portrait of Hubert Robert". Eighteenth-century French Drawings in New York Collections. Metropolitan Museum of Art (1999) No.97.  p.224-5

Here is another example from the National Gallery of Art, Washington:

Black chalk and stumping, heightened with white gouache (32 x 24 cm) 
Gift of John Morton Morris, 2000. Wrapped round a drawing block prepared by Niodot fils

Sunday 24 May 2015

Hubert Robert - prison pictures

During his imprisonment at saint-Lazare during the Terror,  Robert completed over fifty drawings and paintings, including pictures on earthernware plates, many of which he sold. As well as imagined scenes antiquity, he produced sketches of the prison world around him.

 Robert was arrested as a "suspect" on 8 brumaire Year II (29th October 1793).  The denunciation, from the section des Tuileries, still exists.  The immediate pretext was that he had failed to renew his citizen's card.  Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun accused David himself of the denunciation.

With his ties to the French aristocracy, Robert was bound to be regarded with suspicion. Even at the height of the Revolution he still maintained contact with former clients and patrons in the high nobility and financial aristocracy, and rooms that he had decorated werediscovered in many of the urban palaces and country houses confiscated during the Revolution.

Robert was held initially at the former convent of sainte-Pélagie and transferred on the night of  January 30-31 1794 to saint-Lazare.  Among his companions at sainte-Pélagie were a whole collection of liberal figures -  the antiquarian Aubin-Louis Millin de Grandmaison, Joseph Audran, from the Gobelins, the painter Restout, the former Constituent Chabroud, General Biron and the Admiral d'Estaing.  Above all he shared his captivity with his longtime friend the poet Antoine Roucher. Fear as to their utimate fate must have preoccupied the prisoners, but the company determined to endure with bravado. Robert is stated to have behaved with unfailing good humour.  In a margin of one of Roucher's  letters he sketched female heads representing Patience and Hope.

At Sainte-Pelagie detainees with money could secure a certain degree of comfort.  They could have a private cell shared with one or two companions.  Roucher's cost him 15 livres a month.  They could send for food from outside and were also allowed a certain amount of contact with their relatives.  The letters of Roucher to his daughter often mention Robert. Roucher asks his daughter for a copy of de Savary's Travels in Egypt so that Robert, if he could not paint, could at least indulge his love antiquity and forget for a moment "the locks and bars of sainte-Pélagie."  Later Robert, who had by then acquired rudimentary materials, discovered details of the life of St. Pelagie and set about painting her among the ruins of ancient Asia.
Plate depicting the prison of saint-Lazare
National Museum of Western Art, Tokoyo
The prisoners were translated to saint-Lazare in the night of  30 au 31 janvier 1794. As a prison for suspects this was one step closer to the guillotine. Roucher has left a vivid account in his letters of the friends huddled huddled together in his cell awaiting the roll call, then of their uncomfortable journey in straw-lined open carts by torchlight  at five in the morning. Robert left clutching his  portfolio.

Gaoler inscribing the names of prisoners entering the prison saint-Lazare
Painting on a plate from the Musée Lambinet
 At saint-Lazare life continued much as before. The prisoners could still obtain food from outside, though communication with the outside world became more difficult. They were accommodated in rooms without bars or locks, along two long corridors (the "corridor Germinal" for the men and the "corridor Prairial" for the women). There was good light and a courtyard where Robert, who was an active man, could exercise.  The company took it in turns to cook and were able to secure themselves a degree of comfort -  gateaux, salmon, musical instruments, even a pet monkey.   Robert was now able to acquire adequate artist's materials, and produced paintings both for the pleasure of his friends and for sale.  In his letters Roucher described the daily routine of the imprisoned artist who used to paint until midday and then play ball in the courtyard.

Unlike Roucher and his companion André Chenier, who were implicated in the so-called "prison plots", Robert was safely released after Thermidor, on 5th August 1794.  According to one story - which may originate with Robert himself - he was saved from the guillotine only by his common surname;  his name was read out among the condemned but another prisoner called Robert identified himself and was taken in his stead.

 Portraits of the artist in his cell at Saint-Lazare

Self-portrait at sainte-Pélagie (?), 
Musée Carnavalet
Robert painted several self-portraits in prison, probably at saint-Lazare rather than sainte-Pélagie: the panelled windows are described by Roucher in one of his letters. Robert is clearly recognisable with his balding pate and bushy eyebrows, as well as the long coat he always wore. The picture from the Carnvalet is annotated with suitably upbeat Latin mottos: on the edge of the table, "As long as there is life, there is hope" and above the door,"The prison of Socrates is the house of honour". In the picture below, showing a backview of the artist, his cockaded tricorne hat features prominently, perhaps affirming Robert's continued loyalty to the Revolution.

The artist in his cell at saint-Lazare. 
Drawing finished in pen and black ink,plus coloured washes. 26 x 33 cm.
Private collection of Dian Woodner and Andrea Woodner, NY.
Eighteenth-century French Drawings in New York Collections.Metropolitan Museum of Art (1999) No.96.,p.222-3.

Hubert Robert in his cell at St.Lazare
Sold by Sotherby's ,New York, Thursday, January 24, 2002

Scenes of prison life

These three paintings are from the collections of the musée Carnavalet.  The first depicts the "corridor Germinal".  Robert is clearly visible in the centre in his long coat.  The small boy is Roucher's son Emile. The third canvas was commissioned by the Duc d'Audiffret-Pasquier, Robert's prison mate, as a souvenir with which to remember the kind milk sellers who offered a small reprieve to the prisoners during their imprisonment. A slightly smaller version was auctioned by Sotherby's in 2002.

Corridor of the saint-Lazare Prison in 1793

Game of ball in the Courtyard at saint-Lazare

Bringing milk to the prisoners at saint-Lazare in 1794

A Portrait of Antoine Roucher

Jean-Antoine Roucher as he prepares to be transferred from Sainte-Pelagie to Saint-Lazare. c.1794 
 32cm x 40 cm. sgned on the bed "H. Robert pinxit"
 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford,Connecticut
This picture is identified as Roucher "awaiting transfer from Sainte-Pélagie" though it looks more like another room in Saint-Lazare. The bag perhaps suggests he is packed up as though about to depart. The subject was formerly misidentified as Camille Desmoulins.
The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting Yale UP (2003)

A portrait of Louis XVII?

Game of cards at Sainte-Pélagie (Musée des beaux arts d’'Orléans)
Drawing finished in pen and black ink,plus coloured washes
26cm x 40 cm
Signed on the bottom left” "Robert fecit in Sta Pelagiae aedibus"

Royalists would dearly love this picture to represent the dauphin Louis XVII who may have briefly visited sainte-Pélagie with his warder Simon in 1793. A 19th-century catalogue identifies the subject as "Louis XVII at the Temple".  More likely the little boy is Roucher's five-year old son Emile who was allowed to keep his father company in prison. Commentators point out that the adult does not resemble Roucher - but he does seem to be wearing the poet's Rousseau-inspired fur-hat.
CRIL17: A la recherche de la vérité sur Louis XVII
Iconographie, no. 17:
Iconographie, no. 24:

The Sleep of Marat

The sleep of Marat[12439]&showtype=record
The nearest Robert comes to a direct political comment is  this little watercolour of Marat in the Albertina in Vienna.  Marat is asleep or dead, pen in hand; the paper left neglected on his desk can clearly be read - it is "the denunciation of Robert by Beaudoin".  The Friend of the People is surrounded by emblems of the Revolutionary struggle - cudgel, sword and a pike which points to the bust of the assassinated Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau. Most commentators assume that Robert's unflattering portrait is intended to condemn the violence of Marat. ( According to Nina Dubin Robert "satirizes David's painting, depicting Marat not as a martyr but as a drunken brute, emblematic of the madness that led to the painters own misfortune" Futures and Ruins (2010) nt 21,p.182) . Yet Robert cannot have held Marat, who was killed in July 1793, directly responsible for his imprisonment and perhaps regrets the absence of his protection. He did not repudiate David's Revolutionary heroes, far from it - another of his prison picture, now lost, depicted a mother showing her children the tomb of the martyred Barra.


Details of Robert's imprisonment are from:
C. Gabillot, Hubert Robert et son temps, Paris 1895

Saturday 23 May 2015

Hubert Robert - images of Revolution

For a long time the Revolutionary paintings of the great landscape painter, Hubert Robert, "Robert des ruines", were dismissed as mere essays in composition, which had little to say about his personal convictions. It tended to be assumed that Robert's past royal and aristocratic patrons made him a covert partisan of the Ancien régime. However, in 1989 a major exhibition, "Robert et la Révolution" began a process of reappraisal which is still ongoing (see bibliography below)

Robert's commitment to Revolutionary principles now seems clear. Despite his dangerous ties with the Crown and the nobility, he consistently refused to emigrate, and in 1791 declined Catherine the Great's offer of a safe haven in the Russian Court. In 1793 he was admitted into the Revolutionary Commune Générale des Arts.  He stoically endured imprisonment between 29th October 1793 and 5th August 1794.  Although he avoided public office, he was involved in the work of transforming the Grande Galerie of the Louvre into a public museum.  This project was begun before 1789, but Robert saw it as an essentially Revolutionary endeavour. It obsessed him; he painted the gallery at least ten times between 1789 and 1799, including his famous image of the space in a imagined future state of ruin. His depictions of the Revolution rework the themes of official iconography and can legitimately be read as straightforward commemorations of Revolutionary events.

Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruine (1796)  Louvre

The Bastille in the first days of its demolition (1789)

 In the Salon of 1789  Robert exhibited a small canvas depicting the demolition of the Bastille. Pierre Demachy later painted the same theme. The heightened scale of the building exaggerates its impact. The onlookers in the foreground are passive observers of change rather than active participants. The picture excited little comment at the time - it was praised for its veracity by one reviewer but criticised by another as too "agreeable", that is  it conformed too closely to the conventional rules of the picturesque to give justice to the full horror of the Bastille.

La Bastille dans les prémiers jours de sa demolition (1789) Musée Carnavalet
Vivian P. Cameron "Reflections on violence and the crowd in the images of the French Revolution",
Imagining the French Revolution [American Historical Assn. digital project]

The "Day of the Wheelbarrows" and the Festival of the Federation (1790)

Robert's painting of the Fête de la Fédération of 1790, now at Versailles,  hung in the salon of  La Fayette's château de Lagrange and was possibly commissioned by him. In 2012 a second version was sold at auction together with a pendant  La journée des brouettes (the Day of the Wheelbarrows) which depicts Parisians spontaneously coming to the assistance of workers who are preparing the Champ-de-Mars.  Both occasions were key elements in official Revolutionary iconography. 

La journée des brouettes (the Day of the Wheelbarrows) 
La Fête de la Fédération Nationale, le 14 juillet 1790, au Champ-de-Mars

Hubert Robert, Fête de la Fédération Nationale célébrée au Champ de Mars à Paris le 14 juillet 1790, Versailles, châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Christie's 16 April 2012. "Comte and Comtesse, Niel, a shared passion" SALE 3529 LOT 78

La journée des brouettes (detail)

The Violation of the Tombs of the Kings in the Basilica of Saint-Denis (1793)

La violation des caveaux des rois dans la basilique de Saint-Denis en octobre 1793
Charlotte DENOËL, "Le vandalisme révolutionnaire", L'Histoire par l'image

Of all Robert's Revolutionary paintings, this depiction of the dismemberment of the royal crypt is the hardest to accept - surely the artist, with his love of antiquity, must have regretted such an act of vandalism?  If so, there is nothing in the picture itself to really suggest this; the busy workmen merely go about their task or contemplate the scene tranquilly, with the vaults of the ancient basilica soaring impressively above them.


The catalogue of the exhibition Hubert Robert et la Révolution, held at Valence in 1989, is impossible to access or even buy in hard copy.  It is reviewed  Katie Scott in The Burlington Magazine Vol. 132, No. 1048 (Jul., 1990), pp. 500-501. According to this review, the organisers tended to assume that Robert was hostile or ambivalent towards the Revolutionary enterprise and left the interpretation of his Revolutionary works unresolved:
"Despite the stated aims of the exhibition, first to ascertain whether the Revolution effected both a break in the painter's career and a dislocation in his work (p.11) and second to judge the qualitative effect of this caesura (p.27) the interpretative enterprise is often compromised by the organisers' obvious confusion faced with pictures seemingly empty of partisanship (p.25), yet executed by an artist who had invested in the ancien régime  more deeply than most (p.20).  The apparent absence of a coherent and conspicuous ideology in Robert's work leads Boulot to treat many of his transparent and neutral evidence of little more than anecdotal value (p.79, nos. 20, 25)".

Paula Rea Radisich, Hubert Robert : painted spaces of the Enlightenment (C.U.P.1998) 
Reviewed by Christopher Johns,
"Radisich’s excellent book concludes with a thoughtful coda titled “Hubert Robert and the Revolution.” Its brevity leaves the reader a bit disappointed and wanting to know more, although it is undeniably another book project in and of itself. Centered on Robert’s incarceration during the last days of the Terror, Radisich points to this uncertain period as profoundly reformative, in the artistic and psychological sense, for the last years of Robert’s professional activity. The enigmatic Young Girls Dancing around an Obelisk painted in 1798, along with the celebrated Grand Gallery of the Louvre pendants, are identified as political and cultural metaphors of alienation and ambiguity, and the author rightly declines to discuss them in specific terms. Still, these works resonate with a sense of catastrophic devastation that must visualize the profoundly troubled state of mind the disintegration of the Enlightenment posed to an artist of Hubert Robert’s sensibilities. Radisich sagely concludes that the ruin of the cosmopolitan, cultivated and civilized world of the Enlightenment is proclaimed in Young Girls Dancing around an Obelisk. Possibly inspired by Bonaparte’s imperialist ambitions in Egypt, the new world order of Napoleonic nationalism and military adventurism are not far behind."

Nina L. Dubin, Futures and Ruins: Eighteenth-century Paris and the art of Hubert Robert (2010)

The American scholar Frédérique Baumgartner has recently emphasised Robert's Revolutionary credentials:

"Two rediscovered paintings by Hubert Robert and their French Revolutionary context"
Burlington Magazine vol. 1555 May 2013

  According to Baumgartner Robert was "not a simple witness of the Revolution but a critical commentator on revolutionary events, conscious of the ideals of 1790 and anxious to transmit them.

Monday 18 May 2015

Robespierre by Vivant Denon

Vivant Denon,
Pencil drawing of Robespierre
14 cm x 9.1 cm
This pencil drawing was sold by Christie's in Paris on 23 June 2009 as a "portrait of a young man" by Dominique- Vivant Denon.

It is signed "David" and has a label on the back of the mount which reads:
"This sketch of Maximilien Robespierre was made in the prison of La Louis David...Louis David gave this sketch to the Duchesse de Tourzel..."

The subject is clearly Robespierre but the ascription to David is false; comparison with other sketches by Denon, notably the "Revolutionary heads" in the Met., make it clear that he is the artist.

It is still an interesting picture.  We have no means of knowing if it is drawn from life; but Denon had at at least seen Robespierre and was acquainted with contemporary portraits.

Among the Metropolitan Museum sketches is this picture of the guillotined head of Robespierre, which is probably just a work of imagination - it similar in composition to a well-know print of Louis XVI.

I now wonder whether another work by Vivant Denon might be not be the Robespierre from the  Morgan Library - see post of 9th July 2013; the slight caricature fits with his style. 

Xavier Salmon and Philippe Bordes in the catalogue of the 2008 Marie-Antoinette exhibition at the Grand-Palais, suggested that David's famous sketch of Marie-Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, might in fact be by Vivant Denon.  It is a hard conclusion to swallow given the amount of emotional weight this picture carries as drawn from life by the great David.  But I have a feeling he may be right!

Joseph-Emmanuel van den Büssche,
Painter David drawing Marie-Antoinette led to her execution, 1793

Musée de la Révolution française, Vizille
See "Marie-Antoinette conduite à l'échafaud" on Wikipédie, nt.14
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