With characterful craftsmanship and a keen eye for the curious and alluring, French artist Manuel Robbe is considered one of the leading etchers of the ‘Belle Epoque’ era. His ‘audacious, but penetrating’ depictions of women were lauded as some of the best etchings being produced in this burgeoning, heady period crossing over the late 19th century and the early 20th century.
Robbe’s education began at the prestigious Lycée Condorcet school in Paris. Here, he received instruction from engraver Lois Legrand (1863-1951). Perhaps it was here that Robbe’s keen interest in the art of engraving first found shape.
Robbe’s artistic education would continue at the Académie Julian art school and the eminent École des Beaux-Arts. It was at the latter that he came under the tutelage of Eugène Delâtre (1864-1938), son of the famous engraver Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907), and pioneer in colour etching. A certain interest was beginning to be shaped, Robbe was receiving advice from some of the greatest craftsman of engraving within France, and, furthermore, he was doing so at a prosperous time for the craft.
The late 19th century saw a renaissance in the number of artists honing their skill in engravings and etchings, the chemical process through which works are translated onto paper. Colour etching in particular was growing increasingly popular. Whilst it did have its roots in 17th-century experimentation, colour etching had fallen to the wayside in favour of black and white prints. This sudden boom in artists experimenting with and curious about the use of colour in the craft, therefore, was taking the world by technicolour storm. Combined with the already established market for black and white prints, this medium, typically seen as lesser to painting, was finding new appreciation amongst artisans and audiences.
Robbe was one such artist. Whilst he did produce some paintings, his career was predominantly devoted to the production and experimentation of engravings. Indeed, Robbe is often applauded as being an experimenter in the ‘à la poupée’ method of colour etching, in which rags with different colours are applied to a printing plate, and with each impression upon the paper, vibrant colour is built up upon the piece.
He was also an innovator in the sugar-lift printing technique. Dousing his plate in sugar, with a chemical concoction, and then soaking the plate in water would result in thin white lines, creating shape and composition. The plate would then be heated and drenched in acid which sharpened the lines and created intensity. Combined with his use of the ‘à la poupée’ method and the aquatint approach, producing tonal effects with an acid, Robbe’s works were experiments in science, as well as art.
The result is complex, curious pieces of work which resonate on a psychological level as well as an aesthetic one. There is something so compelling about his depictions of women engaged in various, day-to-day activities. At once they seem both glorious beauties of a gloriously beautiful time, the prosperous ‘Belle Epoque’ era, and yet they are not just reduced to their physical attractiveness. Be it through their piercing expressions or the ethereal, curious nature of their surroundings, there seems to be a constant air of mystery around Robbe’s works. Combined with the physicality of the works, how the layers are built up, the print constructed, there is an ‘iridescent quality,’ as one critic praised.
In some cases, works produced for advertising posters do set forth predominantly the beauty of his women. Posters promoting corsets and beauty products seek to demonstrate the physical improvements these products were intended to provide in an alluring, straightforward manner. However, these works only seek to highlight Robbe’s skill. Robbe could shape an image marketable to wide audiences, and also experiment with his own artistic flair and ingenuity.
In all examples, his keen sense of colour is evident. It enlivens his works, the strong hues neatly applied. Even in examples where the ink strays from its intended spot, it is fascinating to see the development of the process, the mastering of a craft. Along with his sugar-shaped lines, Robbe could create an ‘admirable balance of line and colour-blots,’ producing a ‘sense of the modern’ with ‘a personal key of expression, irresistibly refined and charming.’
Female figures were incredibly popular studies for artists at this time. The fashionably dressed, refined, and elegant woman was the human embodiment of the ‘Belle Epoque’ spirit of optimism and prosperity. Robbe’s works fall very much in line with pieces being produced by prominent artists of the time such as Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Yet he has his own flair, his own unique mark.
This was much recognised, and Robbe was well exhibited. He would display his works with both the Societé des Artistes Français and the Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts. He would also be awarded a gold medal when participating in the Exposition Universelle in 1900. He was much admired by art critics such as Gabriel Moury and publishers such as Edmond Saget, who would often feature Robbe’s works in his publications.
With the eve of the First World War came the end of the ‘Belle Epoque’ era. Robbe would continue to produce prints, however, these focussed much more on landscapes. The sun-tinted shores of Brittany were a particular favourite. For reasons unknown, many of these were published under Robbe’s pseudonym, Alphonse Lafitte.
Robbe’s beautifully rendered works were much suited to the beauty of the ‘Belle Epoque.’ However, they transcend simple beauty to become examples of a medium of great skill, imbibed also with psychological intensity and depth. Robbe was working in a medium at the time of its great flourishing, and to such a garden of prosperity he added his own blooms. As an art critic put it, ‘very few artists could achieve so great a variety of expression by one single method with such certainty of touch.’
Born in Paris, France.
Exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, France. Awarded a Gold Medal.
Became a member of the National Society of Fine Arts.
Died in Paris, France.