Few painters in the history of European art were as capable of presenting the grandeur and sublimity of nature as was Robert, while also conveying its charms and less exalted delights. Executed with ebullient rapidity and an almost poetic sensitivity to the subtitles of light, this intimate view of a French garden with a cascade may be confidently dated to around 1787 to 1789, at the eve of the French Revolution, on the basis of the distinctive attire of the two figures who gaze over the balustrade at lower left.
The narrow canal that recedes into the distance, lined by rows of poplar trees, is evocative of the gardens and cascades of the château de Sceaux. While Robert was often inspired by real places, monuments and buildings, he rarely reproduced them with topographical accuracy; usually, he skewed them a bit, reinventing them at least slightly, to fit his fancy. The twin lions that flank the cascade in the present painting, for example, are not found in the gardens of the the château de Sceaux, but the connection to its Grand Canal are significant enough to suggest that Robert used it as inspiration for this capriccio.
By the mid-1770s, the picturesque garden had become a central preoccupation to Robert, who was increasingly giving over his time to its design. In 1775, Robert was commissioned by Louis XVI to paint two canvases of the gardens of Versailles, which were in the process of being replanted. In 1778, he was named Dessinateur des jardins du Roi and began the design and reinstallation of the Baths of Apollo at Versailles. In collaboration with other designers, Robert planned picturesque gardens and garden buildings for several royal residences, including the Petit Trianon, Compiègne, Fontainbleau and Rambouillet. Beginning in 1775, Robert undertook the design of a number of picturesque gardens for private patrons, including the gardens at Ermenonville, Monceau, Méréville, and Retz, often working for patrons who also collected his paintings, and often basing his garden designs on painted views of his conception of the garden he intended to install for them. Having completed the garden, he would frequently execute paintings based on the newly finished site, ornamented with his characteristic staffage of rustic human figures, domesticated animals and decorative statuary. As Kimerly Rorschach has remarked, 'strict topographical accuracy was secondary, even in paintings apparently used as design guides, for they are visions of a finished garden rather than blueprints for constructing one' (Claude to Corot: The Development of Landscape Painting in France, New York, 1990, pp. 118-119).
We are grateful to Joseph Baillio and Dominique Brême for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.