One of the best creators of woodcuts and lithographs in the 19th century and a skilled etcher, Benjamin Jean Pierre Henri Rivière (known as Henri) was also a gifted theatrical designer. A life-long resident of the Montmartre district of Paris, Rivière received only limited formal art training, studying for a year with Émile Jean Baptiste Philippe Bin (1825-1897), a painter known as the “Père Bin,” the “mayor of Montmartre”. In Bin’s studio he met Paul Signac (1863-1935), who became a close friend. Signac encouraged Rivière to visit Brittany in 1880. Brittany became his summer home and (together with Paris) an inspiration for Rivière’s art. By 1882 Rivière had added etchings to his artistic repertoire, producing a number of views of Paris and Brittany. The café and cabaret Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) of Rudolphe Salis (1851-1897) became Rivière’s professional home in 1882, when he was eighteen; he worked as an editor and illustrator for the cabaret’s journal. With Henry Somm (1844-1907), he began to create “shadow theater” productions in 1886, tableaux created by projecting silhouettes of landscapes and moving figures against a screen illuminated in colors, accompanied by music and poetry. The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1887) was so popular that its forty scenes were published in a color album. Forty-four programs by a variety of authors were mounted until 1897, when Salis died and the cabaret closed. With other Chat Noir artists, Rivière exhibited etchings, watercolors and theater designs at the cabaret in 1888. Much of Rivière’s art was influenced by Japanese woodcut prints, which had become well-known in the Parisian artistic community, particularly after the exhibitions of Japanese prints in Paris in 1888 and1890. He collected Japanese prints and became friends with Tadamasa Hayashi, a print dealer in Paris. Rivière taught himself to design and cut wood blocks, make appropriate inks and print the images. He began printing woodcuts in 1888. An admirer of works by Japanese artists Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Rivière’s prints used the flat colors, two-dimensional forms and compositions with elements cut off by borders typical of Japanese ukiyo-e (“floating world”) prints. His first woodcut pictured the construction yard for the Eiffel Tower, Chantier de la Tour Eiffel (Construction Yard of the Eiffel Tower, 1889). Eventually his woodblock prints became very ambitious. He created a series of woodcut images of Breton landscapes, entitled Paysages bretons, a project that would eventually include forty prints completed over several years. Enterrement à Trestraon (Burial at Trestraon, 1891), part of the series, required twelve separate blocks. Although Rivière exhibited pastels, watercolors, etchings and lithographs at the Société de Peintre-Graveurs (Society of Painter-Printmakers) exhibitions at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in 1890 and 1891, he did not exhibit a woodcut until the Société’s exhibition in 1892, when he showed twenty-two color woodcuts. He completed several other series of woodcuts, most notably La Mer, etude de vagues (The Sea, Study of Waves, 1890). Rivière’s first lithograph was commissioned by André Antoine (1858-1943) for the program for productions at his Théâtre Libre in 1890. Rivière’s two-panel view of Montmartre in the snow was printed by Eugène Verneau (?-1913), who went on to print all of Rivière’s lithographs. Notable among them is La Vague (The Wave), inspired by the famous print The Wave by Hokusai, published in 1893 as part of the series L’estampe originale (The Original Print, 18893-1895) by André Marty (1857-?). Rivière produced several sets of lithographs published as albums or series, including landscape scenes of Brittany and Paris in a Japanese style. One set, Les Trente-six Vues de la Tour Eiffel (Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower, 1902), was inspired by Hokusai’s woodblock series, Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, 1831-1834). Rivière created thirty-six five-color lithographs, printed by Verneau and bound as a hard-cover book with end papers and a slipcase designed by George Auriol (1863-1938). Rivière continued to make lithographs until 1917. Rivière’s artistic production was limited in the early 20th century, but he created etchings of landscapes and other scenes and after a 1913 trip to Italy published woodcuts of views of Italy. In 1921 he exhibited watercolors, etchings and woodcuts at a solo exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Rivière remained out of the public eye for the last thirty years of his life. He lived in a village in Provence from 1937 until the end of World War II, when he returned to Paris where he lived until his death in 1951. (TNB 6/2010) Selected bibliography: Cate, Phillip Dennis. “From Redon to Rivière: Albums of the 1890s,” in Gilmour, Pat, ed. Lasting Impressions: Lithography as Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988. Ives, Colta Feller. The Great Wave: the Influence of Japanese Woodcuts on French Prints. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974.
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