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Although Robert had accompanied his old friend, Madame Vigée Lebrun across Paris on the night of her flight from the capital, he did not leave France during the Revolution. He even refused Catherine the Great’s invitation to settle in Russia because, as one of the Empress’s correspondents ironically put it, Robert, the painter of ruins, was in his element for there were now fragments of magnificent buildings on every street-corner in Paris. He assumed a cautious attitude, going about his official duties and accepting what commissions came his way. He painted some contemporary events, like the demolition of the Bastille and revolutionary fêtes, mainly for their “picturesque” effects. Works, such as the moving Last Mass of the Royal Family in the Tuileries in a private collection or The Noailles Children bidding Farewell to their Parents, present whereabouts unknown, indicate, however, where his sentiments lay. He also continued to see his friends from the old days, like Madame du Barry, whose terrified screams on the scaffold were to be unfavourably compared by the émigrés to the Queen’s heroic demeanour in similar circumstances, and Madame de Bonneuil, whose plotting against the new order was to land her in prison. It is, therefore, no surprise that on 29 October 1793, during the height of the Terror, Hubert Robert was arrested under the provisions of the new Law of Suspects, ostensibly for having failed to renew his citizen's card.
Robert was imprisoned first at the suppressed convent of Saint-Pélagie, and three months later, was transferred to Saint-Lazare - the former motherhouse and seminary of the Congregation of the Mission which had been founded by St. Vincent de Paul in the Seventeenth Century. Conditions there were more amenable, and greater personal freedom was afforded to the inmates. During these difficult months, he amused his companions of misfortune with stirring tales of his Italian adventures and a general flow of witty conversation or comic improvisation. Early one morning, while he was playing hand-ball in the courtyard of Saint-Lazare, the artist heard “Robert” called out as one of the names of the sixty to be executed that day. Rushing into the hall, he saw that a man with the same surname had already taken his place in the tumbril. Such brushes with death were common at the time; the architect Ledoux told a similar tale about his own prison days. Robert was freed in August 1794, following the fall of Robespierre.
While in Sainte-Pélagie, Robert decorated the simple earthenware plates on which he ate his meagre supper because he lacked space to work on canvas. According to tradition, he gave these painted vessels to prison guards who sold them for a louis each; the artist used the extra money to buy food and pay for more comfortable accommodations. In the more relaxed atmosphere of Saint-Lazare, he could work at leisure in his cell. In his obituary of the artist, Etienne Vigée stated that Robert executed an untold number of drawings and fifty paintings during his imprisonment in Saint-Lazare. Many of these works were give to his former companions and represent scenes of prison life, like the canvases in the Musée Carnavalet. Others show more characteristic Robert subject-matter, coded with messages about his plight and lack of freedom.1
Taken from his prison window, this View of Montmartre is a charmingly fresh example of Robert’s interest in the typography of Paris and its environs. It shows fields and farms stretching from Saint-Lazare to Montmartre, the latter dominated not by the white mass of the Sacré-Cœur like it is today, but by the sails of many windmills as it was until the Nineteenth Century. Like all Robert’s topographical work, the present canvas is not just a pretty picture; it is also an important document about a city that was to change its appearance radically over the next hundred years. The fields, orchards and outbuildings in the foreground belonged, in fact, to the Clos Saint-Lazare which its former owners – the Fathers of the Mission - had rented to tenants for income, while the large box-like windmill to the left of the middle distance had been built in the 1650’s by St. Vincent de Paul himself. As Professor Simone Zurawski observed, it is interesting to note that none of these structures has as yet been demolished by the Revolutionary authorities in the process of transforming the great ecclesiastical domain of Saint-Lazare into a state prison.
Louis Jean Sangirard, to whom Robert originally gave this picture, had been the Sécretaire Général of the Compagnie des Eaux de Paris. He was imprisoned at Saint-Lazare on 18 March 1794. Like Robert, he too was freed in August 1794.
We would like to thank Professor Simone Zurawski for having provided the information about the Clos Saint-Lazare contained in this sheet.
1. For a more detailed account of Robert’s life during the Revolution cf., J. de Cayeux, Hubert Robert, Paris, 1989, pp. 267-93, figs. 16-17.
M. Louis-Jean Sangirard, former Secretaire Generral of the Companie des Eaux de Paris, who was imprisoned in St Lazare on 18 March 1794.
Ambassador Gazel, purchased 1957; sold 1962
To be included by Joseph Baillio in his forthcoming monograph on Hubert Robert; to be illustrated by Professor Simone Zurawski in his book on Saint-Lazare, the great ecclesiastical domain which functioned as the motherhouse of the Congregation of the Mission before the French Revolution .