Étienne-Gaspard Robert

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Étienne-Gaspard Robert (1763–1837), born in Liège, was a prominent Belgian stage magician known by the stage name of "Robertson", and influential developer of phantasmagoria.

Étienne-Gaspard Robert
Born1763
Liège, Belgium
Died1837
Paris
Resting placePère Lachaise Cemeter

He was described by Charles Dickens as "an honourable and well-educated showman". Alongside his pioneering work on projection techniques for his shows Robert was also a physics lecturer and a keen balloonist at a time of great development in aviation.

He died in Paris and is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Contents

Phantasmagoria

Robert attended a new form of illusion performance in 1793 in the form of a magic lantern show by Paul de Philipsthal. Philipsthal was one of the earliest known performers of such shows and, with his understanding of optics, Robert realised the potential of what would become "phantasmagoria". His skills in painting would also prove to be a significant asset in the development of his new-found obsession.

Fantoscope

Robert read the works of 17th-century scholar Athanasius Kircher and was particularly interested in the magic lantern, an early form of slide projector. He created his own version of the device with several improvements, adding adjustable lenses and a movable carriage system that would allow the operator to change the size of the projected image. He also made it possible to project several different images at once using more than one painted glass slider. The resultant display had a very ghostly effect especially when in a smoky atmosphere. Through this the operator had the ability to manipulate images projected from an unseen location. In 1799, after further refining the system, he received a patent for his "magic lantern on wheels", naming it the Fantoscope.

Shows

Robert developed a phantasmagoria show based around his projection system and the use of other effects and techniques. Robert scripted scenes that involved actors and ventriloquism alongside his projections, creating a convincing impression of the appearance of ghosts. Robert used several projection devices in a variety of ways, including rear projection and projection onto large pieces of wax-coated gauze (giving the image a more translucent appearance). He also used smoke and mirrors to further disguise the mechanisms behind his show. His painting skills allowed him to create accurate depictions of famous French heroes such as Jean-Paul Marat, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Robert appeared at the Pavillon de l'Echiquier on 23 January 1798 and performed his first show. His charisma and the never-before-seen visual effects left the audience convinced that they had seen real ghosts, with many left terrified by the performance.

After being investigated by the authorities, Robert's show was shut down in Paris. He moved to Bordeaux and continued to perform, before returning to Paris a few weeks later.

On his return to Paris Robert discovered that two of his former assistants had continued the performances without him. He refined his show, making it more elaborate and inventive and started performing in a more permanent location from 3 January 1799. The Gothic surroundings of the crumbling Convent des Capucines near the Place Vendôme gave Robert the ideal eerie home for his show.

The shows began with the audience being shown optical illusions and trompe l'oeil" (an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion of objects appearing in three dimensions) effects on their way to the showroom. Inside the candlelit room the audience would be seated as audio effects emulate the sound of wind and thunder and an unseen glass harmonica plays unsettling music. Robert would then enter the room and start a monologue about death and the afterlife. He then began the show in earnest, creating smoky mix of sulphuric acid and aqua fortis before projecting his ghostly apparitions.

The shows were performed at the Convent des Capucines for four years, and Robert went on to take the show around the world, visiting Russia, Spain, and the United States among others.

Quotes

I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them

Books

  • Mémoires récréatifs, scientifiques et anecdotiques (1833)

References

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