Collection: The Royal Treatment: Nicolas Robert (FRENCH, 1614-1685)
THE FIRST PEINTRE ORDINAIRE DU ROI POUR LA MINIATURE TO THE FRENCH COURT
In 1666, Nicolas Robert became the first artist to be appointed Peintre ordinaire du Roi pour la miniature. His splendid designs were painted from the Jardin des Plantes and Menagarie at Versailles.
Nicolas Robert was one of the greatest natural history artists of the 17th century. His work established scientific accuracy and aesthetic appeal standards 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 inspired the great masters of botanical and ornithological art who followed: Jean Joubert, Nicholas Marechal, Gerard van Spaendonck and Pierre-Joseph Redouté.
Robert’s first recorded natural history project was in Italy to create a series of fifty-five botanical images for Giovanni Battista Rossi’s Fiori diversi…intagliati da Nicola Robert, franese. Upon his return to France, his first significant 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 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. Gaston lacked a male heir; thus, at his death, his collection passed to Louis XIV. Impressed by his talent, Louis XIV invited Robert 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, encouraged the King to expand the collection through a contract requiring the artist to paint a minimum of 54 vélins every year. Robert was paid a generous wage of twenty-two gold livres for each painting, which was the equivalent of seven days wages for a skilled laborer at the time. 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).
It can be challenging to distinguish the master from his exceptional assistants. However, the present vellums are of such outstanding quality and some of the most sought-after species that they are undoubtedly the work of the master. 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. This regal collection of vellums forms 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, Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and Hofbibliothek in Vienna.
Vellums by Nicolas Robert in the Arader collection and the Velins du Roi vary in size and shape painted with the artist’s distinctive technique of short fine lines applied with few fine brush hairs contrasted with washes of watercolor. There are several differences too. Both collections have vellums that vary in size and shape. The Velins du Museum often has breaches of the gold border, where a stem or feather breaks through the gold border. Whereas the privately held Roberts frequently include a finished landscape or foliated background. The differences between these formats indicate different purposes. The Velins du Museum was intended for scientific and documentary purposes, while the privately held examples seem to indicate a more decorative intent.
Robert vellums in the Arader collection were likely executed for noble patrons and date from around Robert’s period in Louis XIV court. The lack of inscription or signature confirms these works had a decorative purpose and thus likely produced for a private collection. While Robert was primarily in service of the King, he did take commissions for drawings for Jean Colbert and Etienne Baluze, librarian to Colbert.
The brilliance that made the Sun King recognize Robert as the preeminent watercolorist of his day is still evident in these well-preserved works. 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.