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A Monk Preaching from the Fragment of a Roman Sarcophagus before a Pyramid



Hubert Robert (1733-1808)
A Monk Preaching from the Fragment of a Roman Sarcophagus before a Pyramid
Black chalk and brown wash, with brown ink framing lines at the margins, on laid paper
AGLC 364 @ A.G Leventis Gallery

This is a very free sketch, probably done – albeit from the imagination – in Rome, rather than as a subsequent employment of Roman motifs (the sarcophagus, and the Pyramid of Cestius in the background). It has affinities with a black chalk sketch, inspired by a painting by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765) of Christ Expelling the Moneychangers, once in an album in Hippolyte Destailleur’s great collection of drawings, which seems likewise to have been done in Rome, like the different composition of the same subject, in brown ink and wash over black chalk, in the Louvre.

Hubert Robert went on to develop the idea in a number of other drawings and paintings. Three versions of a finished painting, with the decayed portico of a temple substituted for the pyramid, are known. What appears to have been the preparatory drawing for these, in black chalk, was auctioned in Paris in 1959 and again in London in 1997. A different drawing, with the monk wearing a cowl, was auctioned in the same rooms in 1975. In 1786 he produced a transverse oval painting, in which the monk preaches in front of more ruined portico, from which a bell is suspended, to a number of men, women and a child, who are all asleep, and only a dog is listening to him. Finally, many years later, falling in with the anti-clerical spirit of the Revolution, Robert used the motif of the monk preaching from the fragment of a sarcophagus for an even more satirical painting that he exhibited in the Salon of 1791 (cat. no. 208), entitled ‘ A Preacher in the midst of ancient ruins, having lulled his audience to sleep, takes advantage of this to pluck and eat cherries from a tree’. The somnolent figuresof that painting, and that of the monk stretching out to get cherries from a conveniently adjacent tree, contrast strongly with the attentive women in the foreground of the present drawing, and the impassioned preaching of the monk, in virtually the same attitude as in the painting.

The differences between the two are so stark that it is clear that the drawing cannot have been a study for the painting, but must have been done in its own right much earlier, probably inspired by something that Robert had actually witnessed in Rome.

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About the artist

A French painter, he studied with the sculptor Michel-Ange Slodtz. The drawings he made during his stay in Rome (1754-1765) supplied him with subject matter to work up into oil paintings throughout his career: Roman ruins in idealised surroundings. He returned to Paris in 1765 and enjoyed great success, not only as an artist but also as a designer of picturesque gardens, at Versailles and elsewhere. He was also involved with the development of the Louvre as a public museum.

More paintings of the artist
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