Riviere the artist


B. Riviere, The King Drinks, 1881

Briton Riviere was born on August 14, 1840, in London, England. He came from a family of artists of Huguenot descent—his father, William Riviere, was an art teacher, and his uncle, Henry Parsons Riviere, was a painter. Other artistic relatives include two of William’s sisters and Riviere’s own wife.[1] He was the youngest child, trained by his father in art from 1851 to 1859. Private by nature, Riviere seemed to have preferred animals to humans, having been fixated on them since youth: at age seven, he was already drawing animals at the London Zoological Gardens.[2] In 1851, the eleven-year-old Riviere exhibited two oil paintings with animal subjects at the British Institution, Love at First Sight and Kitten and Tom Kit.[3] In 1859 he exhibited for the second time at the Royal Academy; that year his family moved to Oxford so that his father could teach at the University. Riviere himself attended Oxford University and earned his BA in 1866, MA in 1873, and an honorary DCL in 1891. At Oxford he met fellow art student Clarence Dobell, who introduced him to the Pre-Raphaelites and inspired him to switch in the early 1860s to Pre-Raphaelite-styled historical paintings. Dobell also introduced Riviere to his sister, Mary, whom the artist married on August 6, 1867. In 1869 the Rivieres had their first child, a son they named Hugh Goldwin Riviere; eventually, Hugh would become an artist as well.[4] The couple moved to Kent after their marriage.

During the years between 1866 and 1871, Riviere established himself as a painter and emerged “into the light of fame.”[5] Having tried his hand at Pre-Raphaelite painting and sculpture, Riviere returned to the more lucrative animal paintings around 1864 and never turned back.[6] One of the most esteemed animal painters of his time, Riviere was considered by many to possess technical skills similar to painter James Ward (1769–1859), though he drew inspiration for his content from Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873), especially in depicting animals with human emotions and personalities. Regardless of his inspiration, the artist possessed a style distinctly his own, and was praised for never succumbing to “cheap but false exaggerations . . . by which animals have so often been made burlesques of humanity.”[7] Modern art historians continue to praise the subtle and original connections in his art between the human mind and body with those of the animal.[8] 


Briton Riviere, Sympathy, 1877

Riviere possessed a talent for using sentimentality and pathos in his artwork, which appealed to vastly different audiences and had “the strongest hold upon the sympathies of his contemporary countrymen.” According to art critic Joseph Comyns Carr, Riviere’s art appealed to three audiences: those who “care little for the intellectual qualities” of art, those who “find the keenest delight in his skillful contrasts of human and animal character,” and those “powerfully attracted by the purely dramatic qualities of his art.”[9] Some contemporary critics claimed that Riviere’s use of pathos went “far beyond that of any other living master of pictorial design.”[10] Riviere also excelled at using humor in his paintings “like a potent weapon,” allowing his audience to “really laugh heartily and spontaneously.”[11]

Most popular among the public were the sentimental pieces involving children and animals, with Charity (1870), a painting of a beggar girl feeding two stray dogs, “his first real hit” of this type,[12] the model being his own daughter.[13] Little girls and dogs proved especially popular, as one of his most popular paintings was Sympathy (1878), shown in the Royal Academy’s 1878 exhibition, which featured a sullen girl sitting with her affectionate dog. Critics claimed “nothing better than the almost human expression of the dog’s face was ever painted by Landseer,” and praised engraver Frederick Stacpoole’s “fidelity and delicacy in rendering” a reproduction of the painting.[14] Riviere enjoyed reproductions of his work, and said he “prefer[ed] looking upon an engraving of one of my pictures to gazing at the original canvas,[15] and delighted in seeing his "own idea filtered through another mind.”[16]


B. Riviere, Daniel in the Lion's Den, 1872

In the early 1870’s Riviere had secured his status as a painter. Many of his animal paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy, including his famous works Circe (1871), Daniel (1872), and Persepolis (1878), which further bolstered his reputation. In 1878 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1880, a full member. Also during 1880, Riviere moved to the house he christened “Flaxley,” at 82 Finchley Road in London, primarily because of its proximity to the Zoo. Riviere had it renovated for use as a studio home, and lived in it until his death.[17] By the time Riviere was photographed by J. P Mayall in 1884, he was a full member of the Royal Academy with a lucrative career in painting. Despite his popularity, however, Riviere remained socially reclusive. He did not like living in the city and claimed not to care about the public, avoiding social events and dreading artistic networking.[18]  Nevertheless, his reputation and popularity remained strong, earning him the title of “our premier animal painter of to-day.”[19] Additionally, Riviere was favorably described as “an exceedingly modest man” who “would prefer to speak generously about other men and their work than ‘look back’ upon his own.”[20] As a Royal Academician, Riviere produced many critically acclaimed, if experimental, biblical and classically themed oil paintings, but this period did not last long. When academic art started to decline in value, Riviere began painting more portraits to earn an income sufficient to support his seven children.[21] Often, in these portrait paintings, Riviere added a dog, usually more skillfully painted than the human sitter.[22]

By the 1890’s, Riviere’s eyesight had begun to fail, further inhibiting more experimental artwork. The artist chalked this up to the hours he had spent working nights under artificial lighting during his early career, which he claimed had injured his eyesight, "probably beyond repair.”[23] In 1891, Sir William Armstrong published a monograph on Riviere in the Art Annual, a great honor. After Millais’s death in 1896, he was nearly elected president of the Royal Academy, but lost to Sir Edward Poynter. In 1910, he was given an honorary degree from the Oriel College at Oxford, which also commissioned a portrait bust of the artist.[24] In his later years, Riviere became increasingly reclusive, and he died on April 20, 1920, at Flaxley. His body was cremated three days later at Golders Green.

Michelle Malberg

[1] F. G. Stephens, “Mr. Briton Riviere, R.A., M.A,” in Artists at Home Photographed by J. P. Mayall (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884), 69.

[2] Poppy Mardall, “Briton Riviere (1840-1920) and the unfixed body,” The British Art Journal 8, no. 1 (Summer 2007): 57.

[3] Stephens, Artists at Home, 70.

[4] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Riviere, Briton (1840–1920)," by Simon Reynolds, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edition, May 2011 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35766.

[5] “Death of Mr. Briton Riviere,” Times (London), April 21, 1920, p. 19, The Times Digital Archive.

[6] Oxford DNB, s.v. “Riviere, Briton.”

[7] Wilfred Meynell, Briton Riviere, R.A,” in The Modern School of Art (London: Cassell, 1886). 2:206.

[8] Mardall, “Briton Riviere,” 57.

[9] J. Comyns Carr, “The Royal Academy,” The Academy no. 473 (May 28, 1881): 398, Proquest, https://login.proxy.library.emory.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.emory.edu/docview/6732142?accountid=10747.

[10] Frederick Wedmore, “The Institute of Painters in Oil,” The Academy, no. 607 (December 22, 1883): 421, Proquest, https://login.proxy.library.emory.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.emory.edu/docview/6732142?accountid=10747.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Mr. Briton Riviere’s ‘Sympathy’,” Times (London), June 3, 1881, p. 8, The Times Digital Archive.

[13] Harry How, “Illustrated Interviews,” Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly 11 (January 1896):12, Proquest, https://login.proxy.library.emory.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.emory.edu/docview/4161984?accountid=10747.

[14] “Mr. Briton Riviere’s ‘Sympathy’,” 8.

[15] How, “Illustrated Interviews,” 4.

[16] Ibid., 15.

[17] Giles Walkley, “Gazetter Part Two,” in Artists’ Houses in London 1764–1914, 1914 (Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, VT: Scholar Press, 1994), 251.

[18] Mardall, “Briton Riviere,” 57.

[19] How, “Illustrated Interviews,” 2.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Oxford DNB, s.v. “Riviere, Briton.”

[22] “Death of Riviere,” 19.

[23] How, “Illustrated Interviews,” 6.

[24] Oxford DNB, s.v. “Riviere, Briton."

Riviere the artist