The present panels, believed to depict two prisoners, were executed on rough wooden supports during Robert's captivity under the Terreur. He was interred from October 29, 1793 when he was taken to Sainte-Pélagie prison, until July 1794 when he was released from the prison at Saint-Lazare where he had been transferred on the night of January 30, 1794. Several works survive from this period of confinement including A Game of Cards at the Prison of Sainte-Pélagie, pen and ink and watercolor, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans (see the catalogue of the exhibition, Hubert Robert: Drawings and Watercolors, Washington, National Gallery of Art, Nov. 19, 1978-Jan. 21, 1979, no. 58).
There remains speculation as to the identity of the sitters. Although there is no indication as to the sitter of the second panel, the first is believed to depict the celebrated beauty, Delphine de Custine who was also incarcerated under the Terreur. Jailed in 1794, she was taken first to Sainte-Pélagie, before being transferred to a prison in the Carmes, a carmelite convent near Paris, remaining there until the fall of Robespierre in July that year.
Although Robert was known primarily for his landscapes, the present paintings, which are unique in his oeuvre, should perhaps be viewed alongside his interests as a draughtsman. It is largely in his works on paper that he explores the treatment of isolated figures, while in oils placing the single figure within intimate settings, thus giving them a more fully realized genre air.
To be included in the Wildenstein Institute's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Hubert Robert.