Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):
The works of Hubert Robert are like a premonition: a painter seeing what’s on the horizon and transferring it to the canvas in loose, open-ended brushstrokes. He painted quickly. A Russian prince who had been vying for ownership of one of his pieces said: “He wants the money to come in at the same pace he works at. He dashes off pictures as quickly as writing letters.” And the unfinished impression of his paintings was also appropriate to their subject, as though an earthquake had struck while Robert was at the easel, forcing him to abandon the job. When the world is precarious, his paintings seem to say, the idea of finishing anything stops making sense. “The world was . . . unlasting, what could be forever? or only what it seemed? rock corrodes, rivers freeze, fruit rots . . . and who is lonelier: the hawk or the worm?” wrote a twelve-year-old Truman Capote on the bank of a swampy Alabama river.
Robert was a celebrated painter, universally recognized, when one day all his good luck ran out. Each of his children died in quick succession: Gabriel, Adelaide, Charles, and Adèle. Napoleon came to power soon after, and he was expelled from the Académie and imprisoned at Saint-Lazare (along with the Marquis de Sade). He avoided the guillotine because of an administrative error (another prisoner was killed in his place). After his release, he was employed as an architectural advisor in the building of the Louvre, for which he was paid a token salary, barely enough to live on. He went to his studio late one night to do some work on the plans and, coming into the small, cramped space, tripped. This is how I imagine Hubert Robert’s death: brained by his eagle lecturn. He was seventy-five years old, nine months in arrears on his rent, and quite alone in the world.