Artist Stories

Henri Rivière: Parisian Master Printmaker

Louisa Mahoney 6 June 2024 min Read

Henri Rivière was a painter, printmaker, and designer. He had a unique aesthetic that combined an Impressionist sensibility, Japanese printmaking techniques, and French subjects.

Henri Rivière: Photo of Henri Rivière.

Photo of Henri Rivière.

Henri Rivière was born in 1864 and died in 1951. To put his long life into art historical context, he was born ten years before the first Impressionist exhibition and died the same year as the 9th Street Show, which heralded the rise of Abstract Expressionism. During his lifetime, therefore, art saw one of its most significant reinventions. This sea change is undetectable in Rivière’s work, however. Though he experimented with new forms and styles, his aesthetic remained remarkably consistent throughout his career.

Born in Paris, Rivière’s early life was marked by the chaos of the Franco-Prussian war, which forced his family to flee to the Pyrenees. Upon returning to Paris Rivière began developing an interest in art, both painting and literature. One of his schoolmates was Paul Signac.

Rivière began studying with Emile Bin, who had trained at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts and won the prestigious Second Grand Prix de Rome. Though training with a traditional, academic painter, Rivière was also interested in the more cutting-edge movements of the day, especially the Impressionist movement. He also had a passion for Gustave Doré and printmaking. This mix of interests would serve him for the rest of his life.

Montmartre

Henri Rivière: Henri Rivière, Poster for The Walk to the Star (La Marche à l’Étoile) show at Le Chat Noir cabaret in Paris, France.

Henri Rivière, Poster for The Walk to the Star (La Marche à l’Étoile) show at Le Chat Noir cabaret in Paris, France.

Rivière began his professional career as an illustrator. Soon after he met Rudolphe Salis, who ran Le Chat Noir, one of Montmartre’s famous cabarets. Rivière soon oversaw the weekly journal the cabaret published. Rivière flourished in the uninhibited, bohemian setting. He developed a new style of shadow theatre at the cabaret that he called ombres chinoises. The shows were a huge success, largely due to their unique, often macabre aesthetic and technical advances.

An enormous amount of detail went into the preparation of each piece, Rivière was obsessed with perfecting the lighting and color of his silhouettes. His ombres chinoises made a huge impact in both the sphere of the visual arts and the performing arts, especially helping the development of the phantasmagoria theatrical style.

Henri Rivière: Henri Rivière, Chromolithograph of a set from The Walk to the Star (La Marche à l’Étoile) show, published in 1899.

Henri Rivière, Chromolithograph of a set from The Walk to the Star (La Marche à l’Étoile) show, published in 1899.

Woodcuts

While Rivière was gaining renown with his shadow plays, he also began dedicating himself more and more to printmaking. This new medium allowed the artist to continue his explorations of light, depth, and color. He had become fascinated with Japanese woodcut prints and began experimenting with different techniques to recreate the style. Rivière even insisted on printing on vintage Japanese paper he had imported.

Henri Rivière: Henri Rivière, Enterrement à Trestraou, plate no. 28 from the Brittany Landscapes (Paysages Bretons) series, 1891.

Henri Rivière, Enterrement à Trestraou, plate no. 28 from the Brittany Landscapes (Paysages Bretons) series, 1891.

After much trial and error, Rivière began exhibiting prints at the Société des peintres-graveurs français, where they were well received. His main subjects were Brittany, the northwestern region of France where the artist spent his summers, and the sea. Inspired by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), he created many studies of waves. Rivière’s interest in series was inspired both by the Japanese tradition as well as the trend amongst impressionist artists to create multiple works on a single subject.

Due to the delicate nature of woodblock prints, only a few versions exist of each print. They became extremely sought after and commanded a high price. Soon Rivière’s prints became available to a wider audience as he switched to lithography, a more popular medium.

Litographs

Henri Rivière: Henri Rivière, Le bois de hêtre à Kerzaden from the series Brittany’s Beautiful Countryside (Le Beau Pays de Bretagne), 1917.

Henri Rivière, Le bois de hêtre à Kerzaden from the series Brittany’s Beautiful Countryside (Le Beau Pays de Bretagne), 1917.

While lithography demands the same level of technical sophistication as woodcuts, it is a much simpler and efficient process. Lithographs can be reproduced at a larger scale than woodblock prints. This switch in medium therefore revolutionized Rivière’s production, from fewer than 20 of each print being available to hundreds.

Rivière’s prints made him a major figure in the thriving French Japonisme movement. He referenced the Japanese graphic arts both in the style (simplified lines, bold, unshaded colors) and the composition (the scale and perspective) of his prints. Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) was an important reference for framing. Rivière even used a Japanese-inspired red stamp as his signature.

Rivière continued to organize his work into series, including Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (Les Trente-six vues de la Tour Eiffel) inspired by Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and sold as a book.

AdVertisment

Rivière also collected Japanese prints, especially the ukiyo-e style, which had been popular, especially among artists in France since the mid to late 19th century. He became close with Tadamasa Hayashi, an influential Japanese art dealer. Hayashi commissioned Rivière to create a series of murals for his dining room in Tokyo. It is said that Rivière was paid in prints and objects from the dealer’s stock.

 

Henri Rivière: 

Henri Rivière, Le Trieux à Kermarie from the series Brittany’s Beautiful Countryside (Le Beau Pays de Bretagne), 1912.

Over time, Rivière’s prints became widely diffused and recognizable. While his woodcuts remained sought-after pieces, his lithographs were accessible to a wider market. These prints were used as calendars, cards, even advertisements. The democratization of his work appealed to the growing middle class art market in the beginning of the 20th century.

Though clearly influenced by movements like Impressionism and Japanese art, Rivière never directly associated with an artistic movements. He was, however, a member of a loosely organized literary society started by Paul Signac, among others, Les Harengs Saurs Épileptiques Baudelairiens et Anti-Philistins (The Epileptic, Baudelarian, Anti-philistine Smoked Herrings).

Henri Rivière: Henri Rivière, Paris Seen from Montmartre (Paris vu de Montmartre), plate 2 from the Parisian Landscapes (Paysages parisiens) series, 1900.

Henri Rivière, Paris Seen from Montmartre (Paris vu de Montmartre), plate 2 from the Parisian Landscapes (Paysages parisiens) series, 1900.

The first monographic exhibition on Henri  Rivière was organized in 1921, in the Pavillon de Marsan of the Louvre (today the Musée des Arts décoratifs). In his late career, Rivière dedicated himself to watercolors, moving away from the print style that made him so famous. But he continued to depict his favorite subjects like the sea and life in the French countryside.

Bibliography

1.

Lena Baude, Henri Rivière dans Gallica, 2022, Gallica BNF. Accessed: 17 May 2024.

2.

Élodie Desserle, Henri Rivière: voyage au pays de la couleur, 2022, INHA. Accessed: 17 May 2024.

 

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