Inspired by the outstanding exhibition now on at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. featuring the ink sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings of French 18th century painter, Hubert Robert (22 May 1733 – 15 April 1808), I’ve gone back to experimenting with waterproof inks and watercolor more intensively than ever (as per examples included at the very bottom of this post.)
Hubert Robert’s fantastically detailed watercolors (including use of gouache) are astounding. Accompanying placards in this exhibition note that such watercolors tended in those days to be sketches done for more finished oil paintings. In Robert’s case, however, the watercolors often were at least as detailed as the oil paintings he later produced based upon them. (Modern urban sketchers will appreciate the fact that Robert filled dozens of sketchbooks (I’ve forgotten the exact number) and one of them is on display in this exhibition; every page, front and back, is filled with wonderful ink sketches done in a deft but loose style.)
In another innovative departure from the times, Robert inserted human figures in many of his paintings–to help give a sense of scale to the structures–and adapted the fantastical “capriccio” style (or painted architectural fantasy) for his technique of juxtaposing paintings of ruins with other statues or bridges not actually co-located with the ruins in real life. In addition, he included more modern scenes, including those of contemporary laborers, artists and sketchers, and occasionally probably even himself, at work in the ruins.
Robert grew up in the midst of formal world-class art instruction from an early age, and it certainly shows. During the French Revolution, when he was thrown in prison due to his professional associations with his aristocratic clients, he managed to keep painting (and also managed to survive the ordeal); one of his dinner plates from prison is in this exhibition, with the surface painted with an ornate landscape. In addition, his paintings provide a visual record of life in the prisons during the Reign of Terror; the exhibition includes his paintings of a prison warden, a member of the aristocracy in his cell, and families entering the prison to bring their relatives food. Seeing paintings from this horrific time cannot help but remind one of the power of art, and wonder how much power still remains untapped in our modern times.
In addition, seeing such sublime art might make one want to throw in the towel, or the paintbrush, as it were. But it’s just as likely to make you want to learn more…and more…
Even if most of us can never achieve a tiny fraction of such mastery, it is still wonderful to experiment with the elements of such imaginative painting as Robert’s, and envision the possibilities down the road.