For those who don't know, what's the book about?
On the surface, the book’s about an eighteenth-century French artist who was hugely successful in his day as a painter of ruins. But in a sense, it’s also a book about the present. Art historians generally associate the eighteenth-century love of ruins with the period’s archaeological discoveries and its veneration of ancient Rome. But what the book argues is that the cultural obsession with all things ruinous came about with the dawning of the age of financial uncertainty. The main focus is on a series of Robert’s paintings featuring spectacular scenes of destruction—fires and demolitions, real and imagined. It interprets these within the contexts of real estate speculation in Paris, a volatile stock exchange, and the fluctuations of credit, among others: that is, within a climate of widespread gambling on the future.
What was special about Hubert Robert?
I think he had a special, unmatched capacity for generating sublime, awe-inducing subjects. What he lacked in the way of skill he made up for conceptually, producing impossibly massive, often mystery-filled architectural landscapes. He’s also quite interesting biographically. He had his finger in just about every pie in the cultural buffet: beyond outfitting the homes of the wealthy with his fantastical views of ruins, he built a reputation as a leading designer of gardens at a time when countryside estates were all the rage; he also was one of the first curators at the Louvre. Another remarkable thing about him is that rather than leave Paris during the tumult of the French Revolution—despite that fact that his patrons were fleeing or facing death sentences—he chose to stay, turning down Catherine the Great’s invitation to work for her in St. Petersburg as court artist; consequently he spent eight months in prison and narrowly escaped the guillotine.
How did he influence the world of art?
In the most immediate way, he spent eleven years in Rome building up a repertory of ruin motifs which were mined by neoclassical artists and architects—most famously Boullée and Ledoux—back in Paris. But one can speculate that traces of his paintings—particularly those featuring urban disasters—reside in more recent art as well. For instance, he and the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang—who orchestrates large-scale, pyrotechnic “explosion events” involving gunpowder—might be thought of as bookending the risk-courting artistic tradition, with Turner in that trajectory as well.
Which one of his works struck the biggest chord with you?
I have a soft spot for a gigantic work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that epitomizes his nack for architectural drama: it features skyscraper-like fountains and trees, and miniscule figures wandering a vast, endless staircase that leads to some ambiguous destination. Other chord-strikers: his 1796 pendant paintings of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre museum while it was still undergoing renovation. The first view shows the gallery as it will look upon its completion; the second imagines the same scene in a future state of ruin. A few years later, the artist Joseph Gandy followed Robert’s lead and produced two views of the newly completed Bank of England—the first in its renovated state, and the second as a dilapidated structure. Together, these fascinating and enigmatic works point to the ways in which ruins stirred ideas of the past and future alike.
What's next for you?
At the moment, I’m working on a project on prints of ruins produced in Revolution-era Europe; I’m also interested in writing a history of the relationship of art and finance from the eighteenth century to the present.