Briton Rivière's Garden of Eden is an idyllic view of life in Victorian England and a touching slice of populist romance. Reputedly painted for two struggling lovers, the female half of which had ostracised from her family for loving a man below her social class; the pair were suffering financial hardship due to their new-found independence. Sources are unclear as to whether the work was wrought with the intention that they sell it, but regardless the gesture was intended to help the pair financially. Briton Rivière, on the other hand, was destined for success and popular acclaim – the son of a master-draughtsman at Oxford University, and nephew of the watercolorist Henry Parsons Rivière, he was trained in the craft from a very young age. By the mid-1860s Rivière was a frequent contributor to the Royal Academy exhibitions, proffering epic reproductions of historical and contemporary scenes. Soon, however, the artist turned to animal painting and stayed with the genre for much of his working life.
Choosing to situate the biblical land of paradise, wherein Adam and Eve lived in happiness, in turn of the century London was a bold move from a relatively conservative artist. Yet, touched by the delicacy and purity of this young couple, Rivière’s Garden of Eden looks both back to a classless time and forward to when London might allow such lovers to transcend the boundaries of social status. The sentimentality of this popular Victorian artist would come to embody the dominant tastes of the era. Perhaps thinking of the happiness he enjoyed with his wife, herself a fellow painter, Rivière’s Garden of Eden is a bold image clothed in a populist disguise, and a reproduction in paint of the felt liberation of two lovers.
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