Washerwomen at the Fountain
Maker: Hubert Robert , French, 1733 - 1808
Date: ca. 1770-1775
Dimensions: 33 x 47 in. (83.8 x 119.4 cm.)
Medium: oil on canvas
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Adele S. Browning Memorial Collection, gift of Mildred Browning Green and Honorable Lucius Peyton Green
Object Number: 78.20.18
Label Text: Hubert Robert went to Italy in 1754 as a young artist under the patronage of Étienne-François, comte de Stainville (1719-85), the French ambassador to the papal court and the future duc de Choiseul. During his eleven years in Rome, Robert also enjoyed the protection of the wealthy amateur, the abbé de Saint-Non (1727-1791) and worked closely for several years with Saint-Non's protégé, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Robert's years in Italy had a decisive influence on the formation of his oeuvre, and he continued to draw on the imagery that he sketched in Italy long after his return to France in 1765. Les lavandières à la fontaine is a typical product of the early years of Robert's Parisian period, during which he continued to practice the fashionable genre that he had innovated in Rome, a novel urban pastoral that reveled in the piquant juxtaposition of contemporary signs of social class with timeless symbols of classical grandeur. This vignette offers one of Robert's signature groupings of laundresses plying their trade at a public fountain. The material accessories of the women's profession-their paddles, tubs, and washboards-are just visible in the shadows at left. The rest of the scene incorporates many of Robert's favorite pictorial accessories: a classical sarcophagus serving as an impromptu washbasin, weathered architecture and relief sculptures, and ivy clinging to a crumbling edifice. A preparatory drawing for the canvas (fig. 00) shows the fountain setting, the squat building at right, and the grand staircase in the background. The principal figures were added to the composition after it had been carefully worked out in the preparatory sketch. One such figure, the washerwoman in the foreground balancing an infant on her hip, was a quotation from Boucher's late masterpiece, The Washerwomen, Other figural groups are borrowed from Robert's own drawings and paintings, as was his custom. The motif of a laundress atop a balcony passing a sheet to another reaching up from below also appears in a small panel painting (formerly Galerie Cailleux, Paris), but it is impossible to know which painting was the original iteration of the imagery. Robert has given the figures more prominence in the painting than they had in the sketch, subtly shifting the scale of the scene, and has added details to the architecture to accentuate the appearance of a romantic ruin. Where in the sketch a simple architectural niche appears in the wall of the building at right, in the painting Robert inserts a classical bas-relief sculpture, similar to that which appears in Roman Baths with Laundresses of the late 1760s. The simple parapet at the left of the staircase in the sketch is transformed in the painting into a shattered ruin, overgrown with vines. Although Les lavandières à la fontaine can be described as a capriccio, or architectural fantasy, it is worth remembering that in the eighteenth century the ruins of Rome were not yet the carefully preserved museums that they are today. Tourists (and artists) of Robert's day encountered classical ruins that were, in Jean de Cayeux's words, "open and wild, in one sense, but also alive because they were inhabited. Between the columns of temples-those that had not been transformed into churches-a humble population had built walls, set up trellises, and installed courtyard gardens." Robert's imagined scene of pretty, picturesque laundresses gathered around a fountain in the middle of a crumbling classical courtyard was a fanciful invention, but its power as fantasy derives from its reliance on Robert's lived and carefully observed experience of the Roman landscape.