Nicolas Robert (French, 1614-1685), Pelican
Nicolas Robert (French, 1614-1685)
Pencil, watercolor and gouache, on vellum, with gold border
Vellum size: 13 3/4 x 11 in
Frame size: 20 1/2 x 24 3/4 in
Nicolas Robert (French, 1614-1685)
Nicolas Robert was one of the greatest natural history artists of the 17th century. His work established standards combining scientific accuracy and aesthetic appeal that influenced generations of artists and won the French royal family’s respect and patronage. Robert created a magnificent body of work for the French Crown. He was the first significant contributor to a collection of delicate watercolors on vellum that collectively became known as the Velins du Roi (the King’s Vellums). The watercolors Robert completed under Gaston d’Orleans and then Louis XIV for the royal collection fed the interest and provided the inspiration for the great masters of botanical and ornithological art who followed: Jean Joubert, Nicholas Marechal, Gerard van Spaendonck and Pierre-Joseph Redouté.
Robert’s first major commission was provided by Baron Sainte-Maure in 1641, to create the celebrated Guirlande de Julie, a book of watercolors on vellum of flowers inscribed with madrigals, which was to be a gift to the Baron’s betrothed, Julie d’ Agennes. In 1645, the artist entered the service of Gaston d’Orléans, the brother of Louis XIII. A passionate botanist, Gaston employed several artists to make watercolors of the rare plants that he had assembled in his garden at Blois. At first, Daniel Rabel seems to have been the principal artist, but Robert’s superior talent was quickly recognized. By the time of Gaston’s death in 1660, Robert was responsible for the contents of five large folio albums of vélins or vellums. After Gaston’s death, Robert was invited by Louis XIV to continue his work in Paris at the Jardin du Roi and Versailles. The King’s minister, Colbert, who appointed Robert Peintre ordinaire du Roi pour la miniature in 1666, added to this collection through a contract requiring the artist to paint a minimum of 54 vélins every year. Undoubtedly, Robert must have employed studio assistants to execute, at least in part, some of the seven hundred vélins produced, including Claude Aubriet (1665-1742) and Jean Joubert (1643-1707).
However, the present vellums are of such exceptional quality that they are the master’s work. From 3 to 5 mm, gold borders, visible on these drawings, correspond with those executed for Robert’s vellum of royal collections now preserved in the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. Their vellums form the nucleus of the group of more than six thousand sheets known as the Vélins du Muséum (formerly the Vélins du Roi) that Louis XIV inherited from Gaston d’Orléans. Additional Robert vellums can be found in the Metropolitan Museum collections in New York, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and at the Hofbibliothek in Vienna.
They were likely executed for noble patrons, these stunning ornithological watercolors date from around the time of Robert’s period in Louis XIV court. The birds are defined with subtle modulations of delicate hues, and the simple yet monumental compositions combine flawless artistry with Robert’s exceptional attention to scientific precision. It is a remarkable opportunity to obtain original, unique works by a highly influential and exceptionally talented artist. The brilliance that made the Sun King recognize Robert as the preeminent watercolorist of his day is still evident in these well-preserved works.