Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Portrait of a poet awaiting execution

The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund

The subject of this painting, the poet Jean-Antoine Roucher (1745-94), is in prison, awaiting execution. Pity him. The son of a tailor, he became a poet, of the mortal, mostly forgotten variety.

Although he had written an epithalamium to the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (it was pungently titled “France and Austria at Hymen’s Temple”), he was in fact a friend of the Revolution, and an enlightened disciple of Voltaire and Rousseau.

The Revolution appeared not to care. Roucher was arrested on trumped-up conspiracy charges, and after a long spell in the comfortable-looking cell pictured here, he was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal on the morning of July 25, 1794, and then separated from his head that afternoon, along with 27 others.


From this cell, which he shared for a time with the man who painted him, Hubert Robert, Roucher wrote long letters to his family, and especially to his daughter; they were later published as “The Consolations of My Captivity.”

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In this way, he did what fathers do — unburdened himself of his own dismay and confusion by seeking to divest himself of the tatty threads of his education under the guise of paternal instruction. Advocating decency and philosophical measure in a time of upheaval and barbaric violence, he cautioned against pernicious influences, such as the exaggerated feelings in Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

Futility, thy name is father.

Robert, who had been Keeper of the King’s Pictures for Louis XVI, nonetheless survived the Terror. He probably painted this after Roucher’s execution, intending it as a tribute to his friend, and as a gift to his daughter. Notice how the poet stares at the oval portrait of her on his desk, rather than out the barred window (a motif soon to be intimately associated with Romanticism).

Robert (1733-1808) will next year be the subject of a monographic exhibition at the Louvre and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He spent much of his career in Rome painting ruins — a penchant that earned him the nickname “Robert des ruines.”


Here, however, in an image packed with detail yet pervasively brown (its sober palette is relieved only by two patches of blue and some subtle reds), he painted a ruin of the human kind.

“Everything at a distance,” wrote the German poet Novalis, “turns into poetry: distant mountains, distant people, distant events.”

Only poetry itself sometimes fails to make it.

Jean-Antoine Roucher in Prison

By Hubert Robert. At: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford. 860-278-2670,

Sebastian Smee can be reached at