(Paris 1761 – 1833 Paris)
The cosmopolitan painter and sometime diplomat Auguste Louis Jean Baptiste Rivière was the eldest of the seven children of the secretary of the legation in Paris representing the interests of the Electorate of Saxony, Jean Baptiste Rivière (1737-1826). His mother was Catherine Antoinette Foulquier, a native of Toulouse who had previously achieved success as an actress and dancer at the Comédie Italienne, where she was known by her stage name of “La Catinon.” His paternal ancestors were French, but when and why they settled in Germany remains a mystery. Auguste’s grandfather, Johann Baptist Rivière (1690-1763), served as Chamberlain to the Elector Augustus II (called Augustus the Strong), who in 1694 became king of Poland as Frederick Augustus I. A family tradition would have it that the king allowed his Chamberlain to marry a daughter he had by his Swedish mistress Countess Maria Aurora von Königsmark, who was also the mother of the celebrated military leader Maurice de Saxe, Marshall of France and grandfather of the novelist George Sand. This royal connection would explain why our artist was given the Christian name of Auguste. In 1772 his father was elevated to the rank of chargé d’affaires of the Saxon mission in Paris, a position he would retain until his death. In 1816 he was ennobled and given the title of Baron, after which he and his children called themselves “de Rivière.” In 1784 Auguste Rivière’s sister Suzanne married the writer Etienne Vigée, the brother of Madame Vigée Le Brun. He was thus tangentially related to the already famous court portraitist of Marie Antoinette.
The young Auguste Rivière had artistic aspirations, and in 1774 his father allowed him to study at the Saxon Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden, where he remained for almost four years. In 1778 he returned to Paris where he took courses at the school of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and eventually became a pupil of the history painter Joseph Benoît Suvée. He received several awards for works he submitted to the Académie’s student competitions, including a second prize in 1784 for his Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ (the first prize went to Jacques Louis David’s pupil, Jean Germain Drouais). He exhibited at the Academy in Dresden two paintings with biblical subjects, Saul and the Witch of Endor and Christ Raising the Widow’s Son at Naim, the latter work having been his entry for the Académie Royale’s competition in 1783. He must also have been trained as a miniature painter, an art in which he would later excel.
In 1792, at the beginning of the Terror, Auguste Rivière fled revolutionary Paris and made his way to Turin, where he met up with Madame Vigée Le Brun and her daughter. Thereafter, he accompanied them and their servants on their trek across Europe and into Russia. During this time the two artists often worked in tandem, Vigée Le Brun painting life-size portraits, some of which were copied in miniature or simply on a small scale by Rivière. (Despite what is written on the label on the back of the present painting, Rivière did not paint the backgrounds of Madame Le Brun’s portraits.) She wrote of him in her memoirs:
M. de Rivière was an astonishing actor in comic roles. Moreover he possessed every kind of talent, which caused the painter Doyen to remark that M. de Rivière was a little nécessaire de voyage literally a travelling case, but in French a play on words, meaning that he was a necessary adjunct during her voyages. The fact is that he was a fine painter and he copied all of my portraits in the form of large miniatures in oil. He sang very agreeably, played the violin and the bass viol and could accompany himself at the piano. He was endowed with intelligence, perfect tact and such a good heart that despite his distractions, which were frequent and numerous, he was able to oblige his friends with as much enthusiasm as success. M. de Rivière was short, svelte, and he never lost his youthful appearance, so that even at the age of sixty his thin waist and his bearing led one to think he was thirty. (Trans. from Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Souvenirs, Paris, 1835-37, vol. II, pp. 211-12.)
During their stay in Vienna, Vigée Le Brun painted a pastel portrait of Rivière, which unfortunately has not resurfaced.
While in Saint Petersburg, where the little party arrived in June of 1795, Auguste Rivière appears to have served as Hessian minister to the Court of the Romanovs. In 1798 he and Madame Le Brun were frequent guests at the Marble Palace, the residence assigned by Paul I to the recently dethroned king of Poland, Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatovski. Like Vigée Le Brun, Rivière was eventually made a member of Russia’s Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. In the spring of 1801, travelling in his own carriage, he accompanied Madame Le Brun when she left Russia on her return trip to Paris. The two spent six months in Berlin, so that Vigée Le Brun could undertake a number of portrait commissions from the Prussian royal family. They then proceeded to the city of Brunswick, where members of the Rivière family were residing. After a stay of five or six days in the home of M. de Rivière’s relatives, Vigée Le Brun departed alone, her travelling companion remaining with his family.
Several miniatures that Rivière painted after works by Vigée Le Brun can be accounted for. In 1792, while in Vienna, he signed a miniature copy of her Portrait of the Duchesse de Guiche, a work owned by descendants of the sitter. He also seems to have copied Madame Le Brun’s Portrait of Countess Kinsky wearing a red Shawl (the full-scale original in a private collection, New York), which is lost. Another such miniature was executed by him in 1799 after Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna (removed by Soviet forces from the museum in Gotha and more recently discovered in the storerooms of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow); the miniature was featured as lot 68 in the estate sale of Madame Roussel (Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, 25 March 1912). A miniature reproducing the head and shoulders of Vigée Le Brun’s 1797 portrait of King Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatovski also dates from 1799 (see J. Baillio in the exhibition catalogue, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun 1755-1842, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1982, pp. 114-17, no. 47). Two reductions of Madame Le Brun’s Portrait of a Young Woman in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, may well be by him. (One of these was most recently offered at Sotheby’s, New York, 18 October 2000, lot 51, and the other was at one time in the Arman de Caillavet collection; see Baillio, op. cit., pp. 112-13, no. 45.)
Rivière may well be the author of a group of albums of small portrait drawings executed mostly in pencil in the manner of Vigée Le Brun, the subjects of which are of various nationalities. These books have traditionally, but probably incorrectly, been attributed to Madame Le Brun. Four of them, which were at one time in the Bordes de Fortage and Eudel collections, were included in the auction sale of Louis Deglatigny (Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 4-5 November 1937, lot 379). The present author included one of them, which is privately owned, in the aforementioned Vigée Le Brun exhibition held at the Kimbell Art Museum (no. 41). Another is in The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
It is not known when Auguste Rivière returned to Paris. He was there, however, by 1806, when he exhibited a full-length Portrait of a Woman at the Salon (no. 439 of the exhibition handbook). That work may be identifiable as the Portrait of a Woman playing a Lyre in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow (oil on canvas, 152 x 185 cm.; fig. 1). In 1808 Rivière sent four small paintings to the Salon, among them a bust-length Portrait of Emperor Alexander I (no. 505) and A Woman holding Her Child and dressed in the Costume of a Russian Nursemaid (no. 506). These two works may well have been copies of works by Vigée Le Brun. Another of his paintings, A Young Girl kneeling before a Bust of Pan, is preserved in the Neue Galerie of the Staatliche Museen, Kassel.
In Paris, Auguste Rivière lived in the home of his parents on the rue du Mont-Blanc; in later years he resided at 42, rue Saint-Lazare and at 9, rue de Clichy. It is very possible that he had to abandon painting in order to fulfil the duties imposed by his responsibilities as a diplomat. At various times he served in Paris as consul for the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt and minister in residence of the principality of Hesse-Kassel. At one point, he was made a knight in the Brandenburg-Prussian Order of Concord. It is not known when he married his wife, Antoinette Hélène Golovin (c. 1785-1848), the illegitimate daughter of Count Nikolai Nikolaevich Golovin and his French mistress in Montpellier. The couple had three daughters, Mathilde, Sidonie and Léontine. Prior to the Russian Revolution, their descendants owned a number of paintings by their grandfather. Rivière also had a child out of wedlock, a girl who bore the name Mademoiselle Palmire. He died in 1833 at the age of seventy-two.
Categorised in: Uncategorised
This post was written by joecollinson