The MIR Gallery, an online division of MIR Appraisal Services, Inc., boasts a fine collection of prints, including the sensitive, innovative work of Manuel Robbe. A central figure in the “Peintres-Graveurs”—“Painters-Printmakers” or “Painters-Engravers”—he brought dignity and originality to the medium of printmaking, utilizing novel techniques such as sugar lift, aquatint, and “a la poupee.” Robbe and other innovators changed the character of printmaking; previously a simple means to make color prints of commercial and popular art, printmaking became an artistic medium in its own right. Robbe and his contemporaries also shifted the concept of the print as a suitable part of a collector’s portfolio to the notion of the print as art to be hung upon the wall, as one would display a painting.
The “Peintres-Graveurs” delighted in making original prints; as Michael Schwartz affirms, they “brought to the print the tradition of painting” (Weisberg 3). Charles Perussaux describes Robbe’s “painterly” printmaking techniques; Robbe “painted the subject on the zinc plate with an oil brush” and “used his fingers to play with the tone on the zinc plate, whereby many of his color prints appear completely unique” (Weisberg Manuel 20). In his article “Manuel Robbe, An Etcher in Colours,” Gabriel Mourey further relates Robbe’s process: “He excels in producing a vibrant effect of every tone of white… and by curious hand wiping which brings up the grain of the paper, making it velvety or silvery, misty, grey and mysterious…” (Mourey 161). Thus, to collect Manuel Robbe prints is to collect original works of art; not only were editions of Robbe prints limited (most were limited to the production of 100, as in Le Bon Café, La Visite Du Matin, and A L’ Affut—many are rare editions, such as Le Manege), but also Robbe’s process itself, in which he manipulated the materials with his hands for each printing, ensures the uniqueness of each print.
Born into a Paris which still suffered intensely in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, Manuel Robbie’s sense of a changing French identity keenly informs his work. Art historian Gabriel P. Weisberg relates Robbe’s artistic sensibilities to the artist’s sense of place, asserting:
“This atmosphere, where shattered buildings were everywhere and where the rebuilding of the city’s morale was still to come, may have led the young child toward an early predilection for earthy, realist scenes based on the traditional values of hard work and the tilling of the soil—an understanding of the value of the French countryside” (Weisberg 5).
In this scene, we witness Robbe’s delicate treatment of the aspects of the French farms and countryside as he portrays two graceful figures gathering wheat in a rather Impressionist manner—in “blond tonality” and capturing the “subtle harmony between color and light” (Weisberg 12).
In his color aquatint and etching A L’ Affut (The Watch), a similar delicate light and sensitive rendering of color is evident, as well as his “ability to handle complex figural compositions” (Weisberg 17).
Besides his poignant landscape prints, Robbe’s oeuvre includes domestic scenes, rendered with
tenderness, as in Le Bon Café (The Good Coffee). The female subject’s naturalness and grace in this aquatint and etching print highlight Robbe’s sensitivity to the female form.
Yet Robbe wasn’t solely concerned with female beauty; indeed, the metamorphosis of the various cultural roles of women is a principal motif in Robbe’s art. He often equated the feminine psyche and form with art itself, or portrayed women as patrons of the arts; besides his more romanticized, domestic scenes such as Le Bon Café, he was interested in capturing a new woman—a modern woman, who, granted time for leisure, filled her days pondering the intellectual, as in this print—colored etching and aquatint—in which the life of the sensual and the literary find unification.
In the early 20th century, art critic Gabriel Mourey spoke to these notions of Robbe’s work as a chronicle of the changing roles of women, asserting, “Robbe especially excels in depicting the modern woman… the lady, the artist’s wife or the model” (Mourey). Indeed, E. F. Sanguinetti, Director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, comments more generally upon the ways in which French print makers of Robbe’s era addressed cultural shifts:
“The search for definitions characteristic of all late 19th century political and social institutions was true also in respect to the ways in which women were regarded, and these new and complex relationships with society showed up in the images given to women by artists” (Weisberg Images 1).
Robbe also intuitively addressed the subject of female friendships in his prints, as in La Visite Du Matin (Morning Visit), in which two ladies converse intimately over cups of tea.
Charles Perussaux asserts, “Renoir’s influence is apparent in his upper middle class women of the Bell Epoque” (Weisberg Manuel 20). Certainly prints such as the rare edition of Le Manege (The Merry Go Round) are imbued with the spirit of “Joie de Vivre.”
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Jordan, Katharine A. French Printmakers of the Nineteenth Century. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1973.
Mourey, Gabriel. “Manuel Robbe, An Etcher in Colours.” The Studio. Vol. 27, No. 115.
Weisberg, Gabriel P. Images of Women: Printmakers in France. Salt Lake City: Utah Museum of Fine Art, 1978.
Weisberg, Gabriel P. Manuel Robbe: From Impressionism to Symbolism. Beverly Hills: Galerie Michael, 1987.