1733 — Paris — 1808
Roman Capriccio - title page of album
sheet 101/4 x 133/4" (260 x 350mm). inscribed on the verso, top right, 162 in pencil, and 25 frs. in purple crayon.
This spirited pen and wash drawing shows the ruins of a once grand palace with a view of the portico of the Pantheon in the background, In the left foreground is a man sawing an antique bas-relief into two pieces, the sculpture no doubt intended for a collector of antiquities while the back might be of interest to a restorer of antique works of art, or more prosaically, might be used in new construction. At the right mid-ground is a fountain where a large crowd of cattle have gathered to slake their thirst, stirring up a cloud of dust. This description is based on the artist's more concise account: "Croquis Representant Les Restes dun palais antique / on voit dans le fond le portique du pantheon. Sur le devant / est un scieur qui coupe des basreliefs antique Et au second plan / une fontaine ou un nombreux tropeau vanant boire souleve / la poussiere dans une partie de l'architecture." (It is a pleasure to thank Joseph Baillio for his aid in reading Robert's handwriting; he is preparing a catalogue raisonne of Hubert Robert's paintings for the Wildenstein Institute).
Such sights as depicted must have been encountered from time to time during Robert's more than ten years in Rome (Nov. 1754 - July 1765) as he walked through the city, where fragments of ancient architecture were often little more than picturesque accumulations of rubble. From time to time stone masons appear as subject matter in other paintings and drawings. A notable example is a large highly finished red chalk drawing of a workman sawing a bas-relief, with a dog at his side and a bucket of water to cool the blade of his saw; this group is placed in front of a wall supporting the remains of three columns. ( 1 ) This composition is based on a small rapidly executed black chalk sketch that corresponds to the major elements of the red chalk drawing, although Robert omitted the suggestion of another building included in the upper left of the black chalk sketch. ( 2 ) The black chalk sketch is part of a large album of drawings, mostly small in format, that Robert assembled with a frontispiece inscribed by him in pen and brown ink:"Recueil de 80 Croquis tant d'apres / nature que de Compositions faits / a Rome et a paris par H. / Robert / le 30 mars / 1783." ( 3 ) The artist also placed the man sawing prominently in the foreground of a painting Vue composite de Monuments romain where he is working on a large fragment of an architrave or cornice, with behind him views of the Pantheon and Trajan's Column, and further distant, the dome of St. Peter's. ( 4 ) Even the herd of cattle at a fountain is a sight the artist must have seen in Rome, where stretches of land such as the Roman Forum ( then known as the Campo Vaccino ) was a cow pasture, as seen in a painting of this site by Andrea Locatelli, where there is an oval fountain basin similar to the one in Robert's drawing, although the addition of a sculpture is his invention. ( 5 ) This pen and wash drawing is a characteristic momento of the artist's experiences in Rome, combining fantasy (the ruined palace with its oculus), a celebrated monument (the Parthenon) and the quotidian life of workers such as the man sawing and the cattle herders.
In this writer's experience this drawing is unique for its fairly detailed description of his composition, which raises the question of Robert's intention. There is no obvious answer, although a possible reason is that he wanted to show to a prospective patron an idea for a commission or, perhaps, a work available for purchase. Whatever Robert's intent, the composition is characteristic of his imaginary views of Rome that were popular especially during the decade of the 1770s, which would be an acceptable date for this drawing.Victor Carlson