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 breathtaking Cascade almost certainly does not depict a real site with documentary precision: the rising rock cliff on the left and the tall, arching tree on the right are clever compositional devices that Robert would regularly employ to enclose a view. The thundering waterfall that dominates the foreground was a favorite picturesque motif, and the seated artist who copies this commanding view reappears in paintings and drawings by Robert until the end of his life. On the far right appears a ruin that closely resembles Rome's Colosseum, transplanted to the campagna.
Yet in the middle distance of this deep panorama rise the towers, roofs and steeples of a town that very much has the look of a real place, as previous authors have noted (see Boulot and Cuzin, op. cit.), although it has yet to be convincingly identified. This vibrant painting is signed and dated '1762', when Robert was mid-way through his long sojourn in Italy, and aspects of the impressive architecture resemble buildings in Ronciglione, a 12th-century village in the Cimini mountains, some 54 kilometers from Rome, that Robert's friend Jean-Honoré Fragonard drew on 14 April 1761 (British Museum, London), the first day of his five-month journey back to Paris in the company of the Abbé de Saint-Non. Robert also drew Ronciglione, from a slightly different vantage point, and his splendid red-chalk drawing (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valence) was probably made side-by-side with Fragonard. (Robert may have accompanied Fragonard and Saint-Non as far as Caprarola.)
It is far from clear that Robert was intending to depict Ronciglione in The Cascade, but it would seem that he was reproducing a real town with which he was acquainted. In its deep panoramic view, the painting bears similarities to a lost Roman landscape drawing by Robert which is known only in a copy by Jean-Robert Ango (in counterproof; Bibliothèque Municipale, Besançon), annotated 'Robert 1765 Roma' (see Boulot and Cuzin, op. cit.). The present painting remained in Robert's possession throughout his life, and it appeared in his estate sale in 1809, lot 72, where the catalogue description makes it easily identified: 'A pretty painting, of round format, providing a very extensive viewpoint, with waterfalls in the foreground, crashing into rocks. We note among other figures, a draughtsman occupied in recording the view.' No mention is made of the town, but we are free to wonder if Robert retained the painting in his personal collection because it represented a view of a place in Italy to which he had an attachment.
The tondo format is unusual in Robert's oeuvre, but he employed it with great sophistication, shaping the foreground, framing elements of his composition to follow the round contour of the canvas, and opening up the central background to a dazzling bird's eye view to a distant horizon line. Robert's pair of paintings from 1777, The Ruins and The Old Bridge (formerly, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; sold, Christie's New York, 6 June 2012, lot 81), were in the same format as the present painting and The Old Bridge, in particular, used its round format to comparable effect, opening up beyond a framing device onto a deep, winding river panorama of great freedom and beauty.
Signature: Signed and dated 'Robert. f. 1762' (lower right)
Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania and Detroit Art Institute, The Ruins of Rome, 1960-1961.
Poughkeepsie, Vassar College Art Museum, Hubert Robert: 1733-1808: Paintings and Drawings, 1962, no. 3 (catalogue entry by T.J. McCormick).
New York, Finch College Art Museum, French Paintings, 1962.
Providence, Rhode Island School of Design, 1968-1969.
Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Three Masters of Landscape: Fragonard, Robert and Boucher, 10 November-27 December, 1981, pp. 46-47, no. 33, illustrated.
Rome, Accademia di Francia a Roma, Villa Medici, J.H. Fragonard e H. Robert a Roma, 6 December 1990-24 February 1991, pp. 141-142, 161-162, 190, no. 104.
P. de Nolhac, Hubert Robert, Paris, 1910, p. 114, no. 72.
PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
Hubert Robert, Paris; (†) sale, Paris, 5 April 1809, lot 72 (91 ff. to Soury).
with Erich Galleries, New York; American Art Association, New York, 18-19 April 1934, lot 77.
with Victor Spark, New York.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 21 January 1982, lot 63, where acquired by the present owner.
About Hubert Robert
Nicknamed Robert of the Ruins during his life, Hubert Robert was a popular academy painter in eighteenth-century France who was celebrated for his paintings of fictitious landscapes populated with real ruins. After training in Paris, Robert traveled to Rome in 1754 and spent the following decade enraptured with the architectural ruins there, especially the then-recently excavated Pompeii. Such sites became his paintings’ architectural focal points, though they were often situated in lush, imaginary landscapes. Reverential toward ancient Roman culture, he also included renderings of classical sculptures of mythological figures in his paintings. Upon returning to Paris, Robert worked for aristocrats and royals, painting accurate representations of France as well as adding landscape and furniture design to his oeuvre.
French, 1733-1808, Paris, France, based in Paris, France