At age twelve, Henri Rivière 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 began frequenting the Louvre and Luxembourg museums.
His parents decided to send him for formal training with the painter Emile Bin, with whom he studied briefly. In 1880, Rivière collaborated on the illustrated journal “La Vie Moderne,” while also contributing illustrations to a small number of books.
In 1881, Rodolphe Salis’ avant-garde artistic cabaret in Montmartre, the Chat Noir (Black Cat), re-opened, and Rivière began to frequent this establishment the following year. Beginning in 1882, Rivière acted as secretary to the Chat Noir journal. 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. 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, himself making the illustrations for nine of these.
While still active at the Chat Noir, Rivière pursued other artistic media. Between 1882 and 1886, Rivière completed 21 etchings 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 un-posed 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” (1890-1894), 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 theEiffelTower,” 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. 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.