Henri Rivière: Printmaking, Processes, and the Chat Noir

I’m having one of those moments when I wonder where I’ve been.  I mean, seriously, how is it possible that I’d never heard of Henri Rivière until last weekend?  And now, I can’t get enough!

Henri Rivière, Vegetable Garden at Ville-Hue (Saint-Briac), 1890, From the Breton Landscapes, Color woodblock print printed from eight blocks on eighteenth-century Japanese laid paper. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago.

I was in Chicago last weekend and stopped in at the Smart Museum of Art (University of Chicago) to see their exhibition, Awash in Color: French and Japanese Prints.  So much beauty!  Henri Rivière’s prints lured me in immediately. I love the combination of Japanese woodcut technique and appearance with French subject matter (think Hokusai meets The Gleaners).

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, part of the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, no. 21, 1826-33, medium color woodblock print, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Jean-François Millet ,The Gleaners,1857,color on canvas, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

A little bit about Rivière:  He was a late 19th/early 20th century painter, printmaker and the inventor of a very famous (at the time) and long-standing series of shadow plays at the Chat Noir cabaret in Paris.  Now here’s what I find fascinating:  The shadow plays consisted of back-lit figures acting out various stories, and Rivière was not only interested in making the figures, but in improving the techniques used to create them.  In fact, he actually did more of the technical work than the artistic work (I think I can say this), as he only helped create figures for 9 out of over 40 plays.  Imagine the strong lines needed for shadow play figures, the silhouettes, and then look at the lines in his woodblock prints (see The Vegetable Garden above).

This image is a faithful digitalization of “Henri Rivière Shadow theatre”, for the famous French cabaret of the end of the 19th century “The Chat Noir” in Montmartre, Paris. Copied from the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Henri Rivière. Cabaret of the Chat Noir: Stagehands moving zinc figures behind the screen for The Epic, ca. 1887-94. Gelatin silver print, 3 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. (9 x 12 cm.) Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Gift of Mme. Henriette Guy-Loé and Mlle. Geneviève Noufflard, 1986.

I see a connection.  The technical expertise required to produce color woodcut prints is astounding.  Several separate blocks must be created, with different parts of the finished composition on each.  Then each one is inked with the appropriate color and printed onto the same piece of paper in turn.  So in the first print above (The Vegetable Garden), there would have been a block for the blue, one for the green, one for the brown, etc, which would have been printed separately onto the same piece of paper to create the composition.  Amazing.  And here’s the process he used for creating shadow plays:

Early shadow plays at the Chat Noir were made of black cardboard or zinc cutout figures projected onto a backlit screen. The shadow plays evolved, thanks to Rivière’s innovations, to incorporate glass panels upon which were painted figures and settings, placed at varying distances from the screen and with moving zinc cutouts in front of them to suggest spatial recession: the cutouts placed nearest to the screen appeared black, while those further from it yielded a variety of grays and soft colors.¹

Don’t you see a similarity between the process for creating color woodcuts at the time and Rivière’s work on the shadow plays? It sounds like he may have been as interested in the processes as he was in the finished products, a quality which must have served him well, allowing for experimentation and innovation both in woodcuts and shadow plays.  I would never have associated these two media together, but now I can’t separate them.

Before you go, sit back for a minute, and enjoy a few more of Rivière’s prints.

Henri Rivière. Le Coucher du Soleil (The Sunset). Plate 11 for Les Aspects de la Nature. Color lithograph, 1898. Davidson Galleries, Seattle

Henri Rivière, starting sardine Treboul, plate No. 39 Breton Landscape, 1893, woodblock color print, Quimper, Brittany Prefectural Museum

¹Karen Schneider, “Who Put the Silhouette in Snapshot?”  From Experiment Station, a Phillips Collection Blog, March 16, 2012 (http://blog.phillipscollection.org/2012/03/16/who-put-the-silhouette-in-snapshot/#more-10242)


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