A hundred years ago today, the celebrated Victorian painter Briton Rivière (1840-1920) died. In the first of these two articles commemorating his death, I looked at his training, career and a selection of his works up to 1885. This article concludes that.
Compulsory Education (1887) is another of his successful sentimental paintings showing well-dressed young girls with their pet dogs. Its reference is to the progressive introduction of basic education in England, which first became effectively compulsory with the 1880 Elementary Education Act. Here it’s interpreted loosely, as this girl reads from a book as she hugs her pet dog.
Rivière’s Requiescat from the following year epitomises the faithful relationship between a dog and its master. This is less about the demise of the knight clad in armour than the devotion of his dog, who sits pining by the side of his body.
Many of these animal scenes have whimsical touches of humour. In A Blockade Runner (1888), four dogs are waiting for a cat to try to get out when it stealthily creeps along the top of a wall where they can’t reach.
Rivière’s relatively few religious paintings usually refer to well-known stories involving animals, of which Daniel’s Answer to the King (1890) is a good example. This refers to the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, told in the book of Daniel, Chapter 6. By this time, Daniel is quite an old man, probably into his eighties, and serving the mighty Darius the Mede. The ruler was tricked by Daniel’s rivals into issuing a decree that, for a month, all prayers should be addressed to Darius rather than any god. Anyone who broke that law was to be thrown to their death by lions.
Daniel continued to pray faithfully to the God of Israel, forcing Darius to have him cast into a pit of lions. When the ruler visited Daniel there at dawn, he asked him whether his life had been saved by God. Daniel’s answer to the king was that God had sent an angel to close the jaws of the lions because he had been found blameless before God.
Rivière shows Daniel’s age more faithfully than many artists, and must have used the lions in the zoo at Regent’s Park in London as his models.
Beyond Man’s Footsteps from 1894 was one of Rivière’s best-known paintings, and shows a lone polar bear on an icefall in the Arctic, with the sun on the horizon. This appears to have been inspired by the publication of Charles Darwin’s books in the early 1870s and the artist’s interest in the relationships between humans and wild animals. It was also painted at a time when polar exploration was becoming increasingly common, and artists were starting to accompany expeditions into polar regions.
It has been claimed that this shows a scene in which humans were still entirely absent, but in fact there had been a succession of Arctic expeditions in the quest to find the ‘Northwest Passage’, and Greenland had been inhabited continuously for over eight hundred years. The polar bear was modelled by a specimen in London Zoo.
In 1896, Rivière was narrowly defeated in the election for President of the Royal Academy.
Late in his career, Rivière turned more to painting classical myths involving animals. In his Phoebus Apollo from 1895 he shows the conflated god Apollo doing his daily duty as the god of the sun, with his golden chariot being drawn by five lions. The chariot itself is unusually contemporary in appearance, and the spokes on its wheel show motion blur which is likely to have been influenced by photography.
His simplified painting of Circe and her Swine (before 1896) was used as an illustration for several versions of Homer’s Odyssey, and unusually casts Circe as a magic swineherd, her wand resting behind her. This refers to an episode in which the sorceress turns Odysseus’ crew into a herd of pigs.
Notable by their absence from Rivière’s works are nudes. This may reflect his sheltered training, in which he almost certainly never attended any sort of life class. This explains how his Aphrodite from 1902 is perhaps the only painting of the goddess of erotic love which shows her fully clothed, and not in the least bit erotic. Instead, she reaches up towards a white dove, one of her more ancient associations, and leads a group of pairs of animals, almost like Noah. His allusion to physical love is thus indirect and procreative rather than sensual.
Rivière painted a few portraits, including this of Hallam Tennyson, 2nd Baron Tennyson in 1908. This shows the son of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who had retired in 1904 as the second Governor-General of Australia, and was then living on his father’s former estate Faringford on the Isle of Wight.
Rivière’s treatment of the popular legend of Saint George and the Dragon, painted before 1914, is unusual. The victorious knight lies back exhausted with his sword still in his right hand, looking up to heaven, with the enormous lizard-like body of the dragon dead at his feet. But wrapped up in the coil of its tail is the saint’s black horse, another victim of the battle. There’s no sign of any princess either.
I also have two undated paintings, the first of which is only attributed to Rivière.
Tiger Hunt looks to have been constructed from studies of the animals and set in an imaginary Indian countryside. It may have been painted as a commission for one of the many British who had lived in the country during the days of the Raj.
The closest Rivière seems to have come to painting a nude is in The Rape of Ganymede, which shows Jupiter’s great eagle abducting the young shepherd from the fields near Mount Ida, to serve as his cup-bearer on Mount Olympus. Long recognised as a homoerotic myth, it seems a surprising choice for an artist who painted Aphrodite fully dressed.
Briton Rivière died in London on 20 April 1920, at the age of 79.