Two women walking in the snow under an umbrella bent against the wind. We have seen this kind of image before in Japanese prints from the floating world (ukiyo-e). But the Louvre Museum and the glass pyramids in the background are something new, or are they?
This could be the unidentified photographer's sly recognition of a fortuitous combination of pictorial elements drawn from japonisme, the French term for their infatuation with all things Japanese, aterm coined in the late 19thc century. What the French love, they appropriate as their own. Henri Riviere (1864-1951), an artist nicknamed the 'Little Hokusai" by the Japanese, turned Paris and then Brittany into his own versions of the floating world. Whether etching, color woodcut, or photography, Riviere demonstrated the influence of Japanese art on western aesthetics. The print below comes from Riviere's series Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1902), an homage to Katsushika Hokusai's ukiyo-e masterpiece Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (1826). But there is something else, something remarkable, going on in Riviere's work.
During the two years from 1887-89 when the Eiffel Tower was under construction, the project that would alter the Parisian skyline was controversial. Gustave Eiffel was only granted a permit for his proposed tower to stand for twenty years, a fact overlooked now that the tower has become one of the most beloved landmarks in the world. At the time, engineers debated whether the four legs could support the proposed tower. Riviere who spent his summers in the ancient Celtic landscape of Brittany was equally interested in modern inventions and became an important early photographer. Riviere was granted privileged access to the construction site and his photographs from inside the growing tower are thrilling and deserve to better known outside France.
If I had to choose one photograph to whet your appetite for the entire set (view here) it would be this bird's eye view of the Seine from the tower's Campanile. I don't know of another photographer in the 1880s who was doing this kind of thing. We've become accustomed to photographers going to extreme lengths to capture what we imagine aerial views in the photos of Margaret Bourke-White and others. Riviere, either fearless or nerveless, began documenting the site excavation in January 1887 and followed the construction up until it was completed in March 1889, in time for the opening of the Exposition Universelle on May 15th.
Exactly one hundred years later the Pyramide du Louvre, designed by the Japanese architect I.M. Pei opened to the public. Like the Eiffel Tower, it too was controversial and has also, with time, become a Parisian landmark.
As soon as I was struck by the similarity between Henri Riviere's famous woodcut of the little woman walking past the looming tower I suspected the photographer had it in mind, too. Riviere's Eiffel Tower series are almost as well known in France as the tower itself. The prints are charming but the photographs are a unique event.
1. Architectural Digest - walkers in the snow with umbrellas cross the plaza near the Louvre pyramid in Paris, January 2015.
2. Henri Riviere - a solitary walker in the snow holding an umbrella passes the Eiffel Tower under construction, 1888, from the series Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, Bibliotheque nationale de france, Paris.
3. Henri Riviere - photograph of the Seine taken from a scaffolding on the Campanile of the Eiffel tower under construction, 1888, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
4. Antoine Mongodin - the Louvre and the pyramid in the snow, taken from in front of the Sully Pavillon, no date given, Louvre Museum, Paris.