A printmaker, stage designer, collector, and author, the versatile Henri Rivière (1864-1951) was largely self-taught. His exceptional gifts as a technician first came to light at the famous Paris cabaret Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), where the young artist created ingenious shadow plays using zinc figures and backlighting. This experience with the effects of light and shadow may well have piqued his interest in the camera. Rivière took up photography in the mid-1880s, though he did not use the popular Kodak. Instead, he chose a lightweight box camera that used glass plates with a highly sensitive emulsion. Well versed in the technical aspects of the medium, Rivière made cyanotypes as well as gelatin silver prints. The artist’s photographs reflect his abiding interest in the pace of city life, recording the activity along the streets of Paris and the banks of the Seine. He also directed his camera to the beauty of the Brittany countryside, where Rivière and his wife Eugénie spent their summers. A passionate member of France’s great printmaking revival, the artist created woodblocks and lithographs that showed his admiration and understanding of Japanese woodcuts. The closest links between Rivière’s photographs and prints exist in a portfolio of Eiffel Tower views printed in 1902, which was designed in homage to the Japanese printmaker Hokusai.
The Eiffel Tower: Painter on a knotted rope along a vertical girder, below an intersection of girders, 1889, Gelatin silver print and Plate 36, The Painter in the Tower from Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower,1888–1902, Lithograph.
In 1889, Rivière and his colleagues from the Chat Noir cabaret attended a preview of the Eiffel Tower upon the invitation of the structure’s visionary engineer, Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923). Rivière’s visit yielded thirty-nine photographs, four of which directly inspired images in a bound suite of thirty-six lithographs. In addition to photography, the aesthetic of the series is indebted to Japanese woodblock prints. Rivière taught himself to recreate the processes of Japanese printmakers and for this album he employed the restricted palette they favored for their books. Even the title of Rivière’s publication – Les trente-six vues de la Tour Eiffel (Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower) – references Katsushika Hokusai’s famous Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1826-1833).