From a photograph by A. E. Fardelle. Source: Fenn 142.
Briton Riviere was best known as an animal painter, but he also painted some striking genre and history paintings, often including animals. Born in London in 1840, he came from an artistic family of Huguenot descent: his grandfather was a student at the Royal Academy Schools, as was his father, William Riviere, who went on to become a drawing-master at Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire. Young Briton, who had already started sketching animals at London Zoo, and in 1851 exhibited oil paintings of kittens at the British Institution, was educated at Cheltenham from 1851 to 1859. In 1857, when still at school, he had three paintings accepted by the Royal Academy ("Death of Mr Briton Riviere").
At this point his father moved to Oxford, where he established art as an area of study within the university. Having moved there with his family in 1859, Riviere went on to take his BA and MA degrees at St Mary Hall, Oxford. His connection with St Mary's continued and stood him in good stead: he would be granted the honorary degree of DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) in 1891, and later still an honorary fellowship at Oriel College, with which St Mary Hall was associated. William Fenn believed that "to the cultivation of his mind is due, in great part, the completeness and refinement which, amongst other qualities, especially distinguish his work" (147).
As a young man, Riviere came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and Millais. But after his promising start, success proved elusive, and he had to diversify by taking on illustrative work — not that this was necessarily a step down, since so many important artists at this time were producing illustrations. However, in his case it included making decorative initials for Punch, which was perhaps not what he had expected to be doing. Applying himself to animal painting, and studying with the Scottish painters John Pettie and Sir William Quiller Orchardson, both helped him to firmer ground: "A sequence of animal paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy assured his growing fame" (Reynolds), particularly because they were often engraved. In 1878 he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1880 became a full Academician. After Millais' death in 1896, he only just missed being voted president of the Academy (Sir Edward Poynter won the vote by a narrow margin), although, as Simon Reynolds points out, this was an honour that he would probably not have enjoyed, since he was of "retiring disposition." The same point was made in his Times obituary. Later on, too, his failing eyesight would have been a problem.
As an animal-painter, Riviere "tended to imbue his animals with para-human character" (Norman 180), and did not always escape sentimentality — although he could be humorous as well. While animals did generally feature in his works, his skills were not at all limited to them. At his best, he could produce "a most happy combination of classic lore and animal painting" (Fenn 145), and in later years he became interested in the idea of evolution and was drawn to create wild landscapes like Beyond Man's Footsteps, very different from his popular scenes of children with their pets.
The more intellectual quality that some admired in Riviere had one drawback, at least for one contemporary critic, who argues:
Mr. Briton Riviere, R.A., is the one who comes nearest to Landseer, and it is only just to say that several of his important pictures are equal to many of the best Landseers. But Mr. Riviere is more engaged with the artistic quality of his work than the subject, and while his individual canvases may, in the future, be recognised to have more quality, this will never make him the popular idol Landseer was. ["The Collection," 295]
To others, however, Riviere seemed to be an able successor of Landseer after the latter's death in 1873 (e.g. see Fenn 147).
Riviere, who had married a sister of the poet Sydney Dobell, died on 20 April 1920 at 82 Finchley Road and was cremated at Golders Green three days later. According to Reynolds, he had been "[r]espected for his natural distinction, courtesy, and culture." His wife and seven children survived him, the eldest of his five sons, Hugh Goldwin Riviere (1869–1956), carrying on the family tradition and achieving eminence in the art world as a portrait-painter. — Jacqueline Banerjee
Armstrong, William. "Briton Riviere: his life and work." Christmas Art Annual (1891).
"The Collection of Merton Russell Cotes, Esq., J.P." Art Journal. Vol. 57 (1895). 293-95. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. Web. 5 October 2018.
"Death Of Mr. Briton Riviere: A Popular Animal Painter." Times. 21 April 1920: 19. The Times Digital Archive. Online ed. Web. 5 October 2018.
Fenn, William Wilthew. Some modern artists and their work. Ed. Wilfrid Meynell. London: Cassell, 1883. 141-47. Internet Archive. Web. 5 October 2018.
Norman, Geraldine. Nineteenth-Century Painters and Painting: A Dictionary. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.
Reynolds, Simon. "Riviere, Briton (1840–1920), painter." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web. 5 October 2018.
Created 5 October 2018