Archive for May, 2013

Henri Riviere – Les Trentes-Six Vues de la Tour Eiffel

Thursday, May 9th, 2013


In the late 1880s, Henri Rivière had created several sketches of the Eiffel Tower as it appeared in the Parisian cityscape.  Since circa 1887 he had also been one of the pioneer artists to made use of photography for artistic purposes.  As a matter of fact it is likely that his photographic work prompted the illustrious Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who was a close friend of Rivière, to also take up photography later in life.

As the artist recollects in his memoirs (Henri Rivière, Les détours du chemin, souvenirs, notes & croquis, 1864-1951, Editions Equinoxe, Saint-Remy de Provence, 2004, p. 68-70) he and two friends who were active at the Chat Noir had gained access to the tower while it was being completed.  In these memoirs Rivière recounts the eventful ascent and descent, as his friend Jules Jouy, the famous Montmartre chansonnier, suffered from vertigo, and had to be taken down by crane in a cloth bag!  During this visit Rivière had completed a photo reportage of the final stage of the Tower’s construction.  He gave a set of 27 photographs to the Eiffel archive (now at the Musée d’Orsay).  The 39 photographs of the Tower, out of about 350 known photographs by the artist, show his fascination for this metal age symbol (see: Henri Rivière, graveur et photographe, Edition de la Réunion des musées nationeaux, Paris, 1988).  Henri Rivière is known mostly for his attention to soft landscapes, and it stands to reason that the angular Eiffel Tower would have disturbed his world vision.  The artist however, showed, with his interest in photography and in the Tower, that he was not averse to progress.  On the contrary; many of the images of the series of the Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, show his fondness to this beacon of modern life in the Parisian landscape.  Chances are that this elegant landmark, visible from so many points of the French capital, appealed to him as a silhouette.  His activities for the Chat Noir cabaret, where he had been presenting elaborate shadow plays, made him acutely aware of the effects obtained in Japanese arts.  The flattening of the world into a single dimension, unconcerned with the depth of field, clearly appealed to him immensely (see “La Marche à l’Etoile” album at  This interest in simplifying perspective is profusely clear in many compositions of the Views of the Eiffel Tower.  Circa 1900, after years of ever finer work in color lithography, he decided to translate these drawings and photographs into a series of prints: Les Trente-Six Vues de la Tour Eiffel.  The ambitious project was a collaboration between fellow artists and friends: Asrène Alexandre, the famous art critic, wrote the prologue; Georges Auriol contributed design, and typography; and Eugène Verneau, of course, printed the works.  It is almost certain that the edition projected at 550 was never completed.  After extensive research, it seems likely that the edition was terminated around 300 or even a little bit before that point.  Obviously the production of such an elaborate publication was expensive.  It is likely that after the initial purchases from regular customers, it was decided that finishing the edition was to be ruinous.

The significance of this series cannot be overstated.  The sheer ambition of it has to be acknowledged.  As Armond Fields elegantly put it in is seminal book about the artist: “Rivière completed another important project, one which had occupied his time on and off since 1888: recording the building of the Eiffel Tower.  He had completed his sketches in the 1890’s, and had made two of the images into woodcuts, but had abandoned cutting the rest of the images.  There were thirty-six separate images, each to be printed in five colors with a total of 550 sets produced, 99,000 separate printings were required.  Rivière decided to translate the images into lithographs, and in 1902, Les Trente-Six Vues de la Tour Eiffel appeared. […]  The work was loosely based on Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Fujiyama, and is one of the greatest examples of Japonisme.  The combination of a Japanese style depicting and urban, technological, Western object makes it a perfect example of how French artists synthesized their Japanese influences.” (Henri Rivière, Armond Fields, Gibbs M Smith, Salt Lake City, 1983, p. 30).  And as Arsène Alexandre clearly states in his introduction, the Tower is only an excuse to depicting the beauty of Paris: “Here, it is a matter of telling the flabbergasting beauty of Paris, to tell it again to the ungrateful and undisturbed Parisian who always forget it, and to tell it in all its forms and all its colors.  To make of this album a memento of this beauty to the people of today and a testimonial for those who come after us.”.  To view the complete set of 36 prints and judge for yourself, go to and find the album dedicated to Les Trentes-Six Vues de la Tour Eiffel.

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