The Sunday Section: Art - Briton Riviére

This artist and his work, I have known and loved for a long time.  I love the way the power of the animals, in particular his wild beasts, come through.

Briton Riviére was born in London in August 1840.  His surname points to his family’s Huguenot descent.  His father, William Riviére, was the drawing-master at Cheltenham College before becoming the art teacher at the University of Oxford.  He was responsible for persuading the university to introduce the study of art for undergraduates.

Educated at Cheltenham College and Oxford, Briton had his father to thank for his art training.  In 1857, he exhibited 3 works at the Royal Academy.  Although his early contributions covered the requisite historical topics, these subjects did not fire his interest for long.  In 1865 he was to begin a series of paintings centring on animals that was to occupy much of the rest of his life.  His wife, Mary Alice Dobell, whom he married in 1867, was also a painter; they would go on to have 7 children, 5 sons and 2 daughters.

His first success came in 1869 with the painting, ‘The Long Sleep’, which depicts an old man who has died in his chair, his dogs still by his side.  

From 1871, he began to exhibit classical paintings.  His ‘Circe and her Swine’ garnered him instant success.  

This was followed by ‘Daniel in the Lions' Den’ in 1872, ‘Ulysses and Argus’ in 1873, and ‘Apollo Playing the Lute’ in 1874, which, again, was very well-received.

'Daniel in the Lions' Den'

'Apollo Playing the Lute'

In 1878, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts, and, in 1881, R.A. (or Royal Academician).  Ten years later, he received the degree of Doctor of Civil Law at Oxford.  However, he missed, by a narrow margin, being elected President of the Royal Academy in 1896.

In an interview, Briton Riviére explained his thoughts on painting tame and wild animals.  He believed that it was essential to be fond of an animal in order to paint it; and that “the only way to paint wild animals is to gradually accumulate a large number of studies and great knowledge of the animal itself … I paint from dead animals as well as from live ones … I have done a great deal of work in the dissecting rooms at the Zoological Gardens from time to time.” (Chums Boys Annual – ‘How I Paint Animals’ Aug 1897)

Briton Riviére died April 1920 in London.

'Sympathy' (1877)

'An Anxious Moment' (1878)

'In Manus Tuas, Domine' (1879)

'Una and the Lion' (1880)

'The King Drinks' (1881)

'Old Playfellows' (1883)

'Requiescat' (1888)

'Prometheus' (1889)

'Daniel's Answer to the King' (1890)

'Compulsory Education'


'The Night Watch'


'On the Bank of an African River' (1918)