Gustave Doré was a Romantic French artist who is best known for wood-engraved book illustrations. His printmaking technique brought him great recognition, although for most commissions he primarily focused on drawing the designs while his team of block cutters assisted him in the tedious process. He created around 10,000 illustrations, which helped establish him as one of the most prolific and highly regarded book illustrators of his time. Here is the background of his life followed by the most famous examples of his work.
Gustave Doré’s Background
Doré was born in Strasbourg, France in 1832. His drawings at the age of 5 far exceeded the artistic levels of other children and he began carving in stone at only 12 years old. His career in the arts began at the age of 15 when he started working for the French paper Le journal pour rire as a caricaturist. The primary method he utilized at the time was wood engraving. Between 1847 and 1854, Doré produced several text comics and started receiving commissions to illustrate books by well-renowned authors like Milton and Dante. One of his most significant commissions came from Lord Byron in 1853.
The illustrations he created in the 1860s for the French version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote became widely recognized as the established look of the iconic characters. In 1861, he was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, which is the highest French order of merit awarded by the government. A British publisher requested new illustrations for the Bible. These were released in 1866 and became wildly popular. The next year, he was featured in a major solo exhibition in London. Doré was celebrated for his paintings too, but his woodcuts and engravings drew the most attention and recognition. When he did paint, he primarily used oil paints on canvas.
He collaborated with English author Blanchard Jerrold and the publishers Grant & Co in order to produce 180 wood engravings for London: A Pilgrimage. Some criticized him for heavily focusing on the poverty found in London, while artists like Vincent van Gogh would cite it as inspiration. Doré continued to illustrate books and had his works featured in The Illustrated London News. He died in 1883 after a short illness. He never married and he lived with his mother throughout his whole life. Here are 4 examples of his best-known works.
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1. Bible Illustrations (1866)
Doré created the La Grande Bible de Tours series, composed of 241 wood engravings, for the 1866 French publication of the Bible. Because of his characteristic Romanticist artistic tendencies, he was well-suited for this commission and he prioritized it. Christian-inspired themes reminiscent of historical, religious European art were woven through stories from the Old and New Testament. The work received immediate praise and it still stands as one of his most influential creations. Cassell & Company released this illustrated edition in the UK in the same year and the response was just as positive, leading to his solo exhibition and the opening of the Doré Gallery.
The Vision of Death was one of the 241 drawings he produced for the Bible. Due to the abundance of drawings he had to create, highly skilled wood engravers like Héliodore Pisan assisted him. The drawing portrays Death as a horseman of the apocalypse with Hades trailing in the background. He draws the attention of the viewer to Death with whites that appear as bright lights, which aligns with the story told in Revelation 6:7-8. The condensed clouds at the bottom and the prominence of blacks depict a night sky full of horror that visually translates the dark atmosphere of the verse.
One of his Old Testament engravings The Creation of Light is directly connected to Genesis 1:3 and is one of the earliest illustrations of this series. Visually, it seems simpler than other works he created, with less detail and no human or holy figures. However, the rising sun against the darker clouds is highly symbolic of victory against evil. Compared to many of his other designs that consist of imagery showing chaos and immorality, this one carries a spirit of hopefulness which is translated through his mastery of different shades and tones of gray. This act of God occurred on the first day of creation, so Doré’s decision to only portray the sky and light provides a strong sense that nothing had existed before this.
2. Dante’s Divine Comedy Illustrations (1861-1868)
The first time Doré proposed the project of creating painted illustrations for the first part of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy titled Inferno (c.1300-1314) to his publisher, Louis Hachette, he was denied funding. Once he decided to fund the first edition himself, his publisher approved the project. Doré worked on illustrating the Divine Comedy from 1861 to 1868. Similar to the Bible, Dante’s writings about the afterlife and underworld paralleled Doré’s dramatic artistic style that suited the portrayal of religious themes. After the success of the illustrations for Inferno, he proceeded to produce engravings for the other two sections titled Purgatorio and Paradiso.
In Inferno (Hell), Dante is wandering through the woods searching for salvation without success. Classical Roman poet Virgil finds him and travels alongside him to the underworld. Dante wears a red robe, his traditional garment, while Virgil wears a laurel wreath. This painting depicts the last of the ninth circles of hell that separate the dead based on their sins. This circle represents the sins of malice. Surrounding the two passengers are sinners in agony stuck in a lake of ice.
3. Don Quixote Illustrations
Don Quixote was a revolutionary publication written by Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes in the early 17th century. The French version was released in the 1860s with Doré’s illustrations which heavily influenced the way readers consumed the original work and how the characters were developed for theatrical renditions of the story. Around 200 illustrations were drawn by Doré, which were given to skilled woodcutters to produce the final products for the printed book. The completed edition included 120 wood-engraved full-page images. His vision was arguably contradictory in some ways to the original novel; however, his ability to transform the story through his own distinctive style resulted in a highly revered and quintessential creation.
His designs of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were competing against illustrations by French engravers like Coypel and Johannot. Even with the prevalence of pre-existing illustrations, the characters he drew would be the most influential. This engraving depicts the beginning of a journey taken by Don Quixote who dreams of the chivalrous life of a knight and chases illusions that never manifest into reality. Beside him is his sidekick Sancho Panza, a peasant who becomes Quixote’s squire. In the engraving, Quixote is higher up on a horse which represents his deceptive authority over Panza. However, the horse and the donkey that carries Panza are illustrated side by side, which highlights the fact that the combination of Quixote’s outlandish fantasies and Panza’s sensible logic together create a functional mind and body.
4. Paradise Lost Illustrations by Gustave Doré
Paradise Lost was an epic poem written by the British poet John Milton in 1667. Even after 4 centuries, the poem is still considered one of the greatest works of English literature. Milton writes his own rendition of what followed after Adam and Eve’s greatest sin in the Garden of Eden. Due to its continuous popularity over the years, new editions have been released since its first publication release. Doré was commissioned by Cassell, Petter, and Galphin to illustrate a new version published in London and New York in 1866. He produced 50 illustrations which were translated into 50 plates. The centralization around religious themes aligned with his artistic style and this commissioned work became yet another example of his ability to depict biblical stories with such powerful imagery.
The Fall of Satan illustrates a verse from the fourth book of the poem and is connected to the biblical verse of Isaiah 14:12. Satan is wandering in Eden and attempts to tempt Eve. The engraving references the quote,
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly, Infinite wrath and infinite despair? Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.
One part Milton adds to the original biblical story is background on why Satan, the Fallen Angels, and other demons desired the fall of humanity using deception and rebellion against God’s rules. The poem heavily focuses on Satan’s role in the war between heaven and hell. This is one of the reasons why this engraving was so influential. The light and dark tones of whites and grays of the background with the contrasting dark silhouette of the falling figure represent the battle between good and evil.