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Hubert Robert* (1733-1808)
Hubert Robert* (1733-1808)

'Fantaisie Egyptienne'

Details
Hubert Robert* (1733-1808)
Robert, H.
'Fantaisie Egyptienne'
signed and dated 'Roberti 1760/Roma'
oil on canvas
25 x 37.3/8in. (63.5 x 95cm.)
Provenance
G. Morau-Chaslon, 1884; his sale, Chevalier, Paris, May 2, 1884, lot 37.
F. de Ribes-Christofle, by 1928; his sale, Georges Petit, Paris, Dec. 10-11, 1928, lot 48.
A.M. Louis Dumoulin, Paris; his sale, Galerie Charpentier, Paris, June 9, 1936, lot 25.
Mr. and Mrs. Fred Gelb, New York, 1962.
Anon. Sale, Sotheby's, New York, Jan. 9, 1980, lot 12.
Mr. Raymond Learsy, New York, until 1990.
Literature
P. De Nohlac, Hubert Robert 1733-1808, 1910, p. 144.
H. Burda, Die Ruine in den Bildern Hubert Roberts, 1967, p. 59, fig. 36.
J.F. Menjns, in the catalogue of the exhibition, French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1975, pp. 593-4, under no. 159.
M. Roland Michel, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Piranse et les Franais, Villa Medici, Rome, 1976, p. 305.
R.A. Etlin, The Architecture of Death. The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris, 1984, pp. 112 and 115, fig. 84. F. Irace, Rome: Chamber with Double View, Arbitare, no. 297, June 1991, p. 158.
Exhibited
Paris, Muse de l'Orangerie, Exposition Hubert Robert, 1933, no. 1 (catalogue entry by C. Sterling).
Copenhagen, Palais de Charlottenberg, L'art franais au XVIIIe sicle, 1935, no. 187.
Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Hubert Robert, 1733-1808: Paintings and Drawings, 1962 (catalogue entry by T.J. McCormick).
Rome, Acadmie de France Rome at Villa Medici, J.H. Fragonard e H. Robert a Rome, 1990-1, no. 49, pl. XII (catalogue by J.P. Cuzin, P. Rosenberg and C. Boulot).
Paris, Muse du Louvre; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada; and Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art 1730-1930, 1994-5, no. 25 (catalogue entry by M. Pantazzi).

Lot Essay

Hubert Robert's classical education at the prestigious Jesuit-run Collge de Navarre made him an able Latinist and inspired his youthful fascination with the ancient world. However, it was his journey to Rome in 1754 in the entourage of the newly-appointed French Ambassador to the Holy See -- the Comte de Stainville, later Duc de Choiseul -- that introduced him first-hand to those decaying monuments of the past that would become his lifelong artistic preoccupation and win him the sobriquet 'Robert des Ruines'. He remained in Rome for eleven years, and through his unofficial attachment to the French Academy met important collectors and artists, including Fragonard, the great Italian engraver, Piranesi, and the painter of ruins, Panini, who profoundly influenced his work. He was introduced to the Abb de Saint-Non, an antiquarian who in 1760 commissioned him and Fragonard to make drawn copies of the Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities that Saint-Non later reproduced in his de luxe guidebooks of Italian cities and their works of art.

In the same year that he began his work for Saint-Non, Robert painted the remarkable Fantasie Egyptienne. Although Robert, like virtually all Europeans, had never been to Egypt, Rome had important Egyptian monuments that had been brought to the city, as well as Egyptianizing structures erected during the late years of Roman Empire, all easily available for his study. Several of Robert's Roman views dating from the late 1750s are enlivened with Egyptian motifs -- the Sphinxes, fragments of pharaonic sculpture, obelisks and pyramids that were fast becoming the standard repertory of European 'Egyptomania' -- but Fantaisie Egyptienne is something quite different: imaginary, visionary and colossal, it is, in Michael Pantazzi's words, the 'earliest fully realized Egyptian landscape'. Although Robert incongruously surrounds his composition with cypress trees and the concrete traffic barricades that are still to be found in Rome today, Fantaisie Egyptienne is a remarkably successful attempt to invoke the sense of mystery and grandeur that colors Western fantasies of the Old Kingdom of the Pharaohs. A pair of towering obelisks forms a gateway that opens into a timeless pyramid so vast that its peak is obscured by clouds and it dwarfs the tiny figures that mill around it in awe. Robert would have known one actual pyramid in Rome -- the relatively small Caius Cestius, built in the reign of Augustus -- but the pyramid he conjures is clearly based on an engraving that Piranesi also copied, from Fischer von Erlach's Entwurt einer historischen Architektur of 1721; like Robert's painting, Erlach's design includes identical ramps along the structure's sides and shows its top enveloped in clouds.

Robert would paint a fine variant of this composition (Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton) -- probably executed some years after his return to Paris in 1765 -- and would occasionally create other Egyptianizing subjects, such as the well-known Girls Dancing around an Obelisk of 1798 (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), yet it would be thirty years before the visionary neoclassicism of Fantaisie Egyptienne would find parallels in the works of other European artists, notably in the Cenotaph plans of the architect Boulle, and in Schinkel's nineteenth century stage designs for Mozart's The Magic Flute. It is worth considering that, like Mozart, Robert was an ardent Freemason and in the 1780s was a member of several Masonic lodges in Paris. Freemasonry embraced Enlightenment values of equality, tolerance and reason while indulging a paradoxical curiosity in magic and the occult, and Egypt's 'Sovereign Pyramid' became the Brotherhood's characteristic emblem. Might the pyramids have had personal associations for Robert? Certainly his Fantaisie Egyptienne embodies the allure that the mysterious and arcane held for even the most advanced 18th-century minds and that would fire one of the century's greatest scientific events: Napoleon's expedition to 'discover' Egypt in 1798.
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