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David Roberts (1796-1864)
David Roberts (1796-1864)

West front of Notre Dame Cathedral, Rouen

David Roberts (1796-1864)
West front of Notre Dame Cathedral, Rouen
signed and dated 'D. Roberts/1825' (lower right)
oil on canvas
34 x 28 in. (86.3 x 71 cm.)
The property of an eminent collector; Christie's, London, 23 June 1842, lot 384 (unsold).
Westmacott Esq.; Christie's, London, 20 April 1844, lot 45 (22.10.0 to Antrobus).
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 4 August 1978 (lot 321).
David Roberts's Record Book, no. 7.
Ackerman's Repository of the Arts, 1825, p. 29.
The Times, 28 March 1825, p. 5.
Literary Gazette, 9 April 1825, p. 235.
Art Journal, 1851, p. 221.
James Ballantine, The Life of David Roberts R.A., 1866, no. 8 and p. 25 Cunningham 1880, vol. III, p. 368.
Helen Guiterman, David Roberts R.A., 1978, p. 3.
Helen Guiterman and Briony Llewellyn, David Roberts, Barbican Art Gallery, London and Phaidon Press, 1986, p. 105.
London, Society of British Artists, 1825, no.14.
Perhaps Rochdale 1903, no. 94 as Rouen Cathedral, lent by Charles J. Robinson.

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Lot Essay

Painted by David Roberts after his first visit abroad in 1824 to sketch interesting subjects for easel pictures. This painting was his principal exhibit at the Society of British Artists exhibition at Suffolk Street, London, in 1825. Sir Felix Booth, who bought the work from exhibition, had purchased two Roberts paintings of Melrose Abbey, Scotland, from the previous year's exhibition, which had been the first pictures shown by the Scottish artist in London. Roberts had trained as a house painter in Edinburgh, then worked as a painter of scenery for touring theatre, and in 1821 had begun painting easel pictures in oil. During 1822 he had gone to live in London, moving his wife and daughter there in 1823, the year that the Society of British Artists was founded to increase opportunities to show and sell work. Roberts was one of the artist-run Society's first members. His sales of pictures in 1823-24 encouraged Roberts to develop easel painting alongside his work on theatre scenery and panoramas. In autumn 1824 he travelled to France with his friend 'Jock' Wilson, visiting Dieppe, Rouen and Le Havre, and making sketches on the basis of which he painted four oils for exhibition at Suffolk Street in 1825: the Lady Chapel of St Jacques, Dieppe; the entrance to St Maclou, Rouen; an exterior view of the south transept of Notre Dame cathedral, Rouen; and the current painting of the cathedral's west front. It is this richly decorated west front that is best known from the paintings of it at different times of day by Claude Monet.

Roberts was to become more skilled in oils but this important early painting shows the influence of his work on theatre scenery and dioramas with highlights playing across the West Front façade. Critics described the painting favourably. 'The bold and masterly style in which this rich and beautiful specimen of Gothic architecture is executed places Mr Roberts among the best who have excelled in similar productions,' wrote a reviewer in The Times. 'The picture is full of life and activity, which add much to the attraction of its principal subject,' commented a writer in the Literary Gazette. 'The colours distributed in the different dresses of the assembled groups contribute greatly to the liveliness of the scene.' Lord Northwick was so impressed by the picture that he asked Roberts to paint him a duplicate, which Roberts did with variations in the figures, surrounding buildings and modelling of the cathedral faade. Northwick's picture was submitted successfully by Roberts to the Royal Academy in 1826 and was his first exhibit there. Another view of the west front façade (now in the collection of the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool) was painted by Roberts for his friend, D. R. Hay, and exhibited at the Society of British Artists in 1831. Roberts also painted a further version of the South Transept exterior, exhibited at Suffolk Street in 1830, and a street view looking towards the cathedral tower, shown at the same gallery in 1826.

Our thanks to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for preparing this catalogue entry.

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