Who Put the Silhouette in Snapshot?

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.

A look at Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard reveals a predilection for the silhouette that has as one of its sources the shadow theater experiments of Henri Rivière and his colleagues at the Chat Noir cabaret. Rivière, a printmaker and photographer featured in the Snapshot exhibition, was responsible for helping to make the shadow play productions a complex, pre-cinematic art form. The Chat Noir was the place to be in the 1880s and 1890s. The Paris café was frequented by poets and writers Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Emile Zola, composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, and artists Pierre Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. As Patricia Boyer points out in her book on avant-garde theater in nineteenth century Paris, the illustrators who created the Chat Noir productions “breathed new life into the tradition of shadow plays in France.”

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.

Rivière and his cohorts at Le Chat Noir received an unparalleled invitation from Gustave Eiffel to preview his tower a few months before its completion in 1889. They were told that they were climbing the tower at their own risk and warned to beware of falling bolts. Rivière clung to his camera throughout the arduous climb, creating in the process a highly original group of photographs. He also created a book of lithographs called Thirty-Six views of the Eiffel Tower, in homage to Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. As curator Ellen Lee said during a tour of the exhibition, Rivière found himself deeply engaged with “the greatest shadow puppet of them all”–the Eiffel Tower.

Pierre Bonnard, The Little Laundress, 1896. Color lithograph, 11 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Visitors to the exhibition may enjoy seeing Rivière’s photograph of stagehands moving zinc figures behind the screen at the shadow theatre of the Chat Noir; Bonnard’s silhouette-like The Cab Horse and The Little Laundress (pictured right), which resembles a zinc cutout, and Evenepoel’s images of his family in Paris like Sophie, Charles, Louise and the Nanny on a walk.

2 thoughts on “Who Put the Silhouette in Snapshot?

  1. Loved this show and especially Riviere’s images of Eiffel Tower. A hundred thousand thanks for the entire show . . .

  2. Pingback: Henri Rivière: | I've got some art stuck in my eye

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