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. Continue reading