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Garden of an Italian Villa

Hubert Robert
Garden of an Italian Villa, 1764
oil on canvas
93.5 x 133 cm
Purchased 1998

Garden of an Italian Villa, an unpublished and recently discovered work, is Hubert Robert’s most ambitious and fully resolved landscape from his eleven-year sojourn in Rome. The son of a well-placed valet de chambre in the household of François-Joseph de Choiseul, Marquis de Stainville, Robert was given a classical education normally available only to sons of the nobility. Accompanying Choiseul’s son to Rome in November 1754, Robert was recommended to Charles Natoire, the Director of the French Academy, and was offered lodgings at the Academy. After five years in Rome at the Duc de Choiseul’s expense, Robert was made an official pensionnaire of the French Academy – an honour normally reserved for history painters alone.

During his long stay, Robert unceasingly made sketches and studies of the monuments, architecture, gardens, and inhabitants of Rome and the campagna, or surrounding countryside. With Jean-Honoré Fragonard, with whom he drew and sketched on several occasions, he created an entirely new and original type of “natural” landscape that broke with heroic and pastoral conventions. In their fluid handling, painterly surfaces, and rich, vibrant colouring, these works introduced an authentic visual response to natural surroundings and daily activities, hitherto lacking in the tradition of French landscape painting.

Garden of an Italian Villa is a summation of the lessons Robert learned in Italy, and was probably one of the last compositions of any scale that he painted before returning to Paris in July 1765. It is characteristic of his working method that the painting does not strictly conform to an identifiable garden or villa, but connections can be made with various buildings and gardens in and around Rome (particularly the Villa Borghese and Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli). We are, of course, far from the city’s centre, and in his picturesque garden Robert has incorporated reminiscences from several celebrated villas.

The figures in the composition are particularly charming. An elegantly attired woman accompanied by an abbé climbs the monumental staircase that leads to the gardens of a grand Renaissance villa. She gestures towards the light that can be seen through the foliage. Dwarfed by the overhanging pine trees that arch to form a bower in the distance, the progress of the couple is monitored by a laundress at lower right, an elderly gentleman in a black tricorn hat, and a young boy at lower left. The swaying trees at the centre of the composition and the leaning cypresses at right suggest that a storm is about to break; the patch of blue sky visible above the villa’s main building has already turned to grey in the dark clouds that hover above the agitated trees.

Hubert Robert was one of the most favoured artists of his generation, his assiduousness and devotion to his work commending him to the authorities. He thoroughly immersed himself in the monuments and sites of Rome and its countryside, and his paintings and watercolours, in which topographical elements are juxtaposed in fictitious – and often fantastical – ensembles, found immediate favour with the leading connoisseurs and collectors in Paris. We have yet to discover who first owned Garden of an Italian Villa, but it is one of the most developed and ambitious of a series of picturesque landscapes on which Robert was engaged during his last year in Rome.