Although it would surely have seemed unlikely to his contemporaries, Hubert Robert would prove the most faithful and committed chronicler of the principal public events in the early years of the French Revolution. A charming landscapist and sophisticated painter of architectural ruins, the young Robert was educated at the prestigious Collège de Navarre and protected by the Marquis de Stainville, later Duc de Choiseul. He returned to France in 1765, after eleven years in Rome, the most lauded student at the French Academy. Madame Vigée Le Brun claimed that Robert -- a witty and urbane man-about-town – did not dine at home more than three times a year, and until the Ancien Régime came to its abrupt end, he was master decorator to the French aristocracy, painter of ruins to the royalty of Europe, and garden designer to Louis XVI. His close relations with the aristocracy inevitably compromised him, and in October 1793, he was arrested under the new Law of Suspects, and incarcerated for nine months, first in the former convent of Sainte-Pélagie, then in the former seminary of Saint-Lazare. He produced paintings, drawings and watercolors in prison and – as a way of raising extra money for provisions – decorated earthenware plates which were sold in town by the guards. He is reported to have maintained his cheerful disposition and organized ball games for the inmates in the prison courtyard (he painted one of these in a small canvas in the Musée Carnavalet). After 9 Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre, Robert’s position improved, and he was released in August 1794.
At the Salon of 1789, Robert was among the first painters to address the early events of the Revolution in his famous painting, The Demolition of the Bastille (fig. 1; Musée Carnavalet, Paris): the painting, exhibited just weeks after the event, shows the shell of the empty prison dwarfing the citizens of Paris, who cart off pieces of its debris. He was admitted to the revolutionary Commune générale des Arts, headed by Restout and David, but he also seems to have been granted special access to the royal family in the Tuileries Palace sometime in mid-1791 (after the flight to Varennes) to paint The Last Mass of the Royal Family at the Tuileries (private collection). Throughout the Revolution, Robert’s ideological position seemed ambiguous.
The two small paintings of ‘La Journée des brouettes’ (‘The Day of the Wheelbarrows’) and ‘La Fête de la Fédération Nationale au Champs de Mars’ (‘The Federation Festival at the Champs-de-Mars’), are among the most impressive and remarkable of Robert’s depictions of Revolutionary events. The paintings relate to the first revolutionary festival that took place in Paris, celebrating the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, and Robert was an eyewitness to the festivities. The ‘Fête de la Fédération’ took place in Paris on 14 July 1790. The object was to consolidate the political gains that had been made and to express the unity of the French Nation under the emerging constitutional monarchy. It was a day of consensus and fraternity. Citizen-soldiers and delegates from all the towns in the kingdom would converge on Paris to swear their allegiance to the Constitution in the presence of the legislature and the king. The event was to be staged on an unprecedented scale on the Champ de Mars, the vast parade grounds separating the École Militaire from the Seine. The center of the field would be excavated and the dirt piled high around the sides, thus creating a vast amphitheater. At one end would be an enormous, triple-tiered Arc de Triomphe; at the center an altar where the oath would be taken; and near it a pavilion to house the king and the Assembly.
Final arrangements were not formally approved until three weeks before the event. Thousands of municipal laborers were employed to clear the land and excavate a pit, but time was too short and it could never have been completed without the help of the citizens of Paris. Thousands of volunteers descended on the Champ de Mars to complete the dig. Dozens of eyewitness accounts attest to the extraordinary event. Men and women of every class came, including ladies of the court, priests and fishwives. Lafayette lent a hand and even Louis XVI went to inspect the site. Robert’s ‘The Day of the Wheelbarrows’ depicts the Parisian crowds that spontaneously came to the assistance of the workers struggling to prepare the parade grounds; its companion represents the actual day of the Festival.
On the 14th of July, the great event itself occurred. Figures vary as to the numbers in attendance, but it was certainly many hundreds of thousands. The rain-drenched procession of delegates entered the arch and paraded to the altar. Tallyrand, Bishop of Autun, attended by 300 priests in white surpluses and tricolor scarves, blessed the fédérés and said Mass, then led the singing of the Te Deum to the accompaniment of 1200 musicians. With this the foundation of the Constitutional Church was laid to supplant the Catholic Church and bind the faithful to the Revolution. Lafayette administered the oath to the fédérés; canon were fired and the king swore fealty to the new Constitution.
Robert’s pair of paintings represents the Festival as a two-fold event, as Frédérique Baumgartner has observed in an insightful study of the paintings, with ‘The Day of the Wheelbarrows’ providing an important preamble to the ceremony. Hubert Robert has often been presented as an essentially apolitical view painter who recorded the great revolutionary events of his time as picturesque spectacle, stripped of any ideological significance. But Baumgartner perceives in Robert’s pair of paintings subtle political ramifications. For her, in the ‘Day of the Wheelbarrows’, Robert emphasizes the optimism of this act of communal labor, where men and women of all ages, occupations and social classes briefly shared the same space and the same purpose, “turning their gathering in the Champ de Mars into a tangible manifestation of universalism as it was understood in 1790.” In the companion composition, Robert places the actual ceremony of the Fête de la Fédération at a great remove from the viewer, with just a few figures far from the event serving to animate the foreground. Baumgartner suggests that Robert, having embraced the optimistic universalism of the ‘Day of the Wheelbarrows’, took a cooler view of the Festival itself, a highly orchestrated ceremonial affair, stripped of spontaneity and individual liberty, which served to enforce and institutionalize social consensus and national unity as a political ideal. For Baumgartner, “Robert’s pendants encapsulate this critical gap between universalism as a sentiment and universalism as an ideology.”
Of course, their political and documentary significance aside, Robert’s paintings are lively, colorful and beautifully painted panoramas of Paris in 1790. There is no indication that Robert intended these paintings as sketches – they are certainly finished compositions in their own right. However, the artist painted a slightly larger (52 x 96 cm.) version of The Celebration of the Festival of the National Federation, a work that he signed and dated ‘1790’, and which was owned by the Marquis de Lafayette (Versailles).
The ceremony of the Fête de la Fédération was intended to unite all France, bring to a close the Triumphant Revolution itself and celebrate the institution of a new reformist era. The English poet, William Wordsworth, who landed at Calais on the day of the Festival, wrote that “Everywhere, benevolence and blessedness spread like a fragrance.” Of course, the Revolution was only just beginning, and the execution of the king two and a half years later would effectively obliterate the monarchy that had ruled France for over a millennium. But as Hubert Robert himself experienced and documented, on 14 July 1790 -- for at least a brief moment -- the dream of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité was made manifest.