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HENRI RIVIèRE

PARIS 1864 - SUCY-EN-BRIE 1951


Henri Rivière was a true Parisian, born in Montmarte on March 11, 1864. His father, Prosper Rivière, was originally from the Pyrenees and ran a wholesale lace and crinoline store in Paris. Rivière’s mother, Henriette Leroux, was from a bourgeois working family. She had a second son, Jules, a year after Henri’s birth. In 1870, when Henri was six, Prosper moved his family to the Pyrenees after France’s defeat of the Prussians. Prosper died three years later. In 1875, Henriette remarried Léon Fruger in Paris.
At age twelve, Henri was already showing an interest in the arts, drawing copies of his favorite book illustrations. As early as 1879, he discovered the art of the Impressionists and frequently visited the Louvre and Luxembourg museums.
His parents found him a job with an ostrich plume importer, but he tired of sorting plumes and escaped to paint in Montmartre after eight days. They then decided to send him for formal training with the painter Emile Bin, where he studied briefly. In 1880, Rivière collaborated on the illustrated journal La Vie Moderne, while also contributing illustrations to a couple of books.
1881 marks the opening of Rodolphe Salis’ avant-garde artistic cabaret in Montmartre, the Chat Noir (Black Cat), which Rivière started to frequent the following year. Beginning in 1882, Rivière acted as secretary to the Chat Noir journal, a lighthearted weekly published by Salis, which featured poems, tales, news and illustrations. Rivière actively edited the journal until 1885, occasionally contributing his own illustrations, exhibition reviews and essays on contemporary painters.
In 1886, Rivière made his first shadow play at the Chat Noir cabaret by back lighting zinc cutouts onto screens; the figures appeared as silhouettes on the backdrop. His first major production was L’Epopee, a play by Caran d’Ache. From 1886 to 1896, Rivière collaborated on 43 shadow plays on various mythological, historical and biblical themes, making the illustrations for nine himself. To create the illusions of depth, perspective and movement, he perfected the use of enameled cutouts and colored lighting which subtly and realistically simulated the fugitive hues of sky, land and water.
While still active at the Chat Noir, Rivière pursued other artistic media. Between 1882 and 1886, Toudouze noted that Rivière completed 21 etching before abandoning the medium until 1906. As evidenced by the Musee d’Orsay’s 1988 show, Henri Rivière: Graveur et photographe, the artist’s interest in photography stemmed from the mid 1880s, but seems to have dissipated before 1907. His photographs were composed in similar fashion to his later prints: the subjects were unposed and engaged in everyday activities. Besides executing countless sketches and watercolors, Rivière made both his first color woodcut and his first color lithograph in 1889.
Rivière’s printmaking work in both woodcut and lithography was predominantly conceived of and executed in series. His color woodcuts include 40 plates for the series Brittany Landscapes from 1890 to 1894; six for The Sea: Studies of Waves, and four proofs for two series that were never completed. One of these series was Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, which the artist had initially wished to execute as color woodcuts, but which were finally finished 14 years later as color lithographs.
His color lithographic work spreads out over 28 years, from 1889 to 1917, comprising the following series: 16 plates for The Aspects of Nature from 1897 to 1899; 20 for The Beautiful Country of Brittany from 1897 to 1917; eight for Parisian Landscapes in 1900; 16 for The Magic Hours from 1901 to 1902; 36 for The Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, all published in 1902; and four for The Noirot Wind in 1906. Rivière also made independent illustrations in color lithography for playbills, magazines, print albums and calendars.
Basing his print compositions on previously executed sketches, watercolors and photographs, Rivière’s landscapes comprise both urban and rural settings. Rivière visited Brittany for the first time in 1884, and continued to spend free summers there until 1916. Together with his native city of Paris, Brittany supplied the brunt of motifs for his landscapes. Although Rivière published his last print in 1917, he continued to experiment with the medium of watercolor until late in his life, exploring the changing effects of weather, seasons and light. He died on August 24, 1951, at age 87.

From: Henri Rivière: The Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1888-1902), Watermarks Gallery, Pittsboro, NC, 1995.