Monday, 18 October 2021

Hubert Robert at Méréville

Here are two striking oil paintings of Méréville by Hubert Robert which were auctioned by Sotheby's New York in January of last last year. Although they have been previously exhibited and documented, this is the first time that images have been readily accessible on the internet.  According to the catalogue notes, the pictures originally hung in Laborde's  hôtel in the rue Cerutti  and were at one time the property of comte Alexandre de Laborde (1853-1944) the financier's great-grandson. The sale price was $620,000, which was within the estimate.

See Sotheby's, Master Paintings, Evening Sale, 29th January 2020, lot 66.  Pair of  oils depicting:  The lake and château at Méréville; The rustic bridge and the Temple of Filial Piety. Each 64 cm x 81 cm.

Following his appointment as Dessinateur des Jardins du Roi in 1784 Robert  enjoyed an established reputation as a designer of landscapes.  He worked on a number of concurrent commissions at this time: at Méréville, at Betz and on the Laiterie de la Reine at Rambouillet. He was associated with Laborde's project for the house and gardens at Méréville over a prolonged period, between May 1786 and April 1793.  Laborde and Robert moved in the same social circles and were bound together by a unity of outlook.  They were both, for example, intimates of Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun; her supper parties also included the financier Boutin, Jacques Deville and the comte d'Angiviller, Director of Royal Buildings,  who was Laborde's brother-in-law and Robert's patron. In 1789 Laborde purchased  Lebrun's famous portrait of Robert which he displayed as a pendant to Lebrun's Self-portrait with daughter.

Robert's exact contribution to the gardens with which he is associated is not always easy to establish. However, Robert's biographer, Jean de Cayeux discovered in the archives of the duc de Mouchy in the Archives Nationales over fifty documents evoking the collaboration between Robert and  Laborde at Méréville.  They confirm that Robert was responsible for the realisation of the park, for which Belanger had supplied only the initial ground plan.  Twenty six letters and thirteen reports spread over the eight years show the sincere attachment of the two men. 

Robert was not a mason or a gardener; rather he worked through the medium of painting, creating a series of viewpoints and perspectives to suggest a promenade through the landscape.
 He executed a number of preparatory oil sketches and plaster maquettes for Méréville, some of which still survive. His drawings provide visual evidence for the massive scale of the  project. He collaborated with Barré, architect of the mansion,  on the structures in the parks and also brought with him to Méréville the artists and craftsmen with whom he had worked at Versailles,  among them the sculptor Yves-Éloi Boucher, nephew of François Boucher. Boucher and several others are mentioned in the  correspondence as being responsible for creating models of the grottoes and subterranean passages. 

Robert's letters to Laborde reveal that his intention to create a sort of  "Voyage pittoresque", as outlined by Saint-Non in his book of 1782. Visitors travelled through the landscape, both literally -  by walkway, coach and boat - and psychologically.  Robert gloried in extreme effects.  A "gallery of caverns" measuring "168 feet in length" was designed to "fill even the most confident of souls with fright": "who would not regard these rocks, fissures, crevices the marvellous work of nature".  Another striking fabrique was the prevarious wooden Devil's Bridge to the north of the château, designed to recall the vertiginous Swiss Alps ( "One advances, while trembling, over the bridge made of tree trunks and branches".)   Distant times and places were evoked by the Temple of Filial Piety, or the melancholy monument  to Captain Cook which was based the fountain of the emperor Commodus in Rome.  This, Robert wrote was to inhabit the garden's "most dark and savage" corner. 

The aim of such structures was captivate the imagination and induce suspension of judgment; as  Alexandre Laborde commented, "There, where all was created by art, everything appeared to be the work of nature and time".

Robert's depictions of Méréville are numerous, and scattered through both public and private collections.  As Gabriel Wick notes, they pose a certain problem of interpretation since they include both Robert's working oil sketches used to guide the construction of the park, but also larger scale views intended for display, mostly in Laborde's townhouse, to illustrate the ongoing work and arouse the interest of his guests. 

Among Robert's most substantial works for  Méréville were six large panels commissioned by Laborde in 1787  to decorate the Salon d'hiver and the Billiard Room on the ground floor of the château. The four paintings made for the salon d'hiver, which depict fanciful Roman ruins, are now in the Art Institute of Chicago. No doubt they were intended to anticipate and compliment  the gardens beyond the windows.  Today, their positioning is indicated in the partly restored house by modern replicas. The two paintings in the Billiard Room were fanciful views of Méréville itself imagined as an Arcadian paradise.

See:  Art Institute of Chicago:

Hubert Robert, Château de Méréville  Collections of the Domaine de Sceaux  Wikimedia Commons

Among the larger canvases created for display is this view of the house and Great Lake, now in the Musée de l'île de France at Sceaux. The painting measures 143 cm by 202 cm,   It  shows the dense plantings of willows and Lombardy poplars around the lake.  To the left is the rostral column and in the centre the bridge of the Golden Orbs in its original setting.   

Notice on the museum website: 

This second large scale view, which is from a private collection, featured in the 2017 exhibition, "Hubert Robert et la fabrique des jardins", curated by Gabriel Wicks. It is one of the two canvasses that from the Billiard Room at Méréville.  In the background is the Temple of Filial Piety and the Petit parc. The picture below, which is also privately owned, was also included in the exhibition.  It shows the wooden bridge and Grande Cascade from the vantage point of the grotto; at the bottom left Robert has included himself at work on one of his sketches. 

There are various smaller pictures in public collections: The National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm has a pair of canvasses, depicting views of the wooden bridge and cascade. They are the same size as the two canvases sold by Sothebys, so maybe they belonged to the same set.  Seeärld

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, NM2794 and NM 2094. Both 65 cm x 81 cm.

Other oil sketches are more modest in size, and were probably intended primarily to aid construction and  give Laborde an idea of how the garden would appear: 

View of the Park of Méréville and its cascade, c. 1791-92. 54cm x 65 cm.
Conseil départemental de l'Essonne, direction des Archives et du Patrimoine mobilier.

This canvas represents one of the principal "scenes" of the garden, clustered around the Small Lake, at the foot of Trajan's Column.   The ensemble consisted of the Cascade, the Rock Arch, and the promontory on which sat the rustic cabin.

The Rustic Bridge, 65 cm x 53 cm
Minneapolis Institute of Art 


Gabriel Wick, Méréville: renaissance of a great landscape garden 2018.  Guide in English;  pdf. available to download on Academia:   Gabriel Wick -

Jean-François Delmas,"Jean-Joseph de Laborde et le domaine de Méréville", État et société en France aux XVIIe et XVIII siècles (2000), p.181-194. Etat et société en France aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles - Google Books

Paula Rea Radisch 'La Chose Publique:' Hubert Robert's decorations for the 'petit salon' at Méréville," in The Consumption of Culture: Word, Image, and Object in the 17th and 18th Centuries, edited by John Brewer and Ann Bermingham,  (London: Routledge, 1995), 401-415.

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