Last year I received an email that contained a poem by Jean de La Fontaine, the French poet whose fables are classics of French literature. These poems are delightful and that day, I enjoyed lingering over Le petit Poisson et le Pêcheur. However, what struck me more than the verse or the wisdom of its moral was the illustration that accompanied the text. The engraving was credited to Gustave Doré. After a few google searches, I learned that Doré is arguably the most illustrious illustrator in French history. In addition to being a prolific engraver, Doré was also a 19th-century painter and sculptor who produced many stunning works. Yet, I’d never heard of him. In recent weeks, I’ve had time to dig deeper and have found a fascinating and brilliant figure whose name should be more widely known.
An Ambitious and Talented Youth
Doré was born in Strasbourg in 1832. He was a precocious and enthusiastic youngster who reportedly drew well by the age of 5, loved playing the violin, and was a talented acrobat by the time he reached middle school. His father, Pierre Doré, expected the young Gustave to become an engineer. When Doré was 15, however, while accompanying Pierre on a business trip to Paris, he noticed a window display of caricatures at the publishing house of Aubert and Philipon. Assured that his own work was superior, he snuck away from the hotel where he and his father were staying to see if he could land himself a job. Monsieur Philipon, initially skeptical of the boy’s abilities, put Gustave to the test, asking him to produce some sketches on the spot. Doré quickly convinced Philipon that he would be an asset to the newspaper’s staff. After delicate negotiations with Pierre and I suspect a fair amount of insistence by Gustave, Philipon hired the ambitious teen.
Now living in Paris with a friend of his mother’s, Gustave split his time between finishing high school and working on Philipon’s flagship periodical, le Journal pour rire. Below is an example of his work, dated in 1848 when Gustave would have been 16 years old and still in school. In 1849, Pierre Doré died unexpectedly. Fortunately, Gustave was earning enough to support the family. In fact, at the age of 17, he was the highest-paid illustrator in France. His mother moved to Paris where she lived with her gifted son for the remainder of her life.
In 1851, Doré began transitioning from comic illustrator to literary illustrator. By 1855, he’d created artwork for several classic volumes, including works by Rabelais and Balzac. Hatchette, a prestigious French publishing house, began handling all of his literary engravings. In 1856, he left le Journal pour rire and ended his career as a cartoonist. Today, you’ll find mention of his work on many sites dedicated to comics and bandes dessinées. He’s cited as one of the earliest French cartoonists in history, not including the emblematic Jaques Callot, a 17th-century engraver.
A Risk Taker
In the late 1850s, Doré began working on engravings to illustrate Dante’s Inferno. He approached Hatchette about using them in a new edition of the famous masterpiece. Hatchette rejected Doré’s proposal, claiming that the detailed drawings were too expensive to print. Doré offered to pay for the book’s production costs and Hatchette reluctantly printed 1000 copies. His skepticism was so great, however, that he only bound 100 copies to sell. Despite the lavish price, the new edition flew off the shelves. The project proved a financial success for both artist and publisher. Many of the images still appear in modern-day editions of Dante’s Inferno.
A Prolific Producer
Throughout his life, Doré’s productivity was staggering. Between 1852 and 1883, Doré created the illustrations for more than 120 French works as well as works in German, Spanish, English, and Russian. Doré was a skilled etcher, but most of his prints were executed by professional engravers whom he often hand-selected and sometimes even coached. Numerous sources claim that Doré produced over 100,000 individual works over the course of his lifetime. More amazing still is the fact that Doré died at the age of 51. The galleries below display a tiny fraction of his illustrations. I encourage you to click on some of the images to get a closer look.
A Bitter Outsider
Despite the worldwide popularity that Doré enjoyed during his life, his long-term vision was to be accepted by France’s fine art community. He was a self-taught painter and sculptor and excelled in both of those domains. Perhaps his lack of classical training coupled with his failure to join in the budding impressionist movement marked him as an outsider. The artistic community recognized him as a fanciful illustrator but that is where their endorsement ended.
Embittered and frustrated throughout his life by his inability to break into the world of “high art”, Doré was sometimes tormented by his success as an illustrator. Ernest Meissonier was a peer that he deeply resented. Like Doré, Meissonier had started as an illustrator but had gone on to be heralded as a dazzling painter. Referring to Meissonier, Doré once commented, “Certain artists derive the same advantage from their unproductiveness as do diplomats from silence.“
The book Doré, Master of Imagination, contains a rare self-portrait that Doré drew around 1870. In it, he draws himself as an old man wearing a laurel wreath around his head. The caption reads, “G. Doré en 1895, Trop d’illustrations, pas assez de gloire.” (G. Doré in 1895, Too many illustrations, not enough glory.) Today, the finest art museums and collectors around the world proudly display Doré’s paintings and sculptures in addition to his illustrations.
A Worthy Rival
Doré had much in common with his contemporary, Edouard Manet. They both admired Delacroix, belonged to the same association of etchers, exhibited their work at the Société nationale des beaux-arts, and strove to maintain a certain level of institutional independence. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, they both volunteered for the National Guard. The French government awarded each with the coveted Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. However, the two artists had very different upbringings. The self-taught Doré came from a middle-class family. Manet, who completed a classical studio apprenticeship, was the son of a senior government official.
Perhaps as a result of his distinguished formation, Manet has long been recognized as a French modernist painter and a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. By contrast, Doré was and still is largely known as the most illustrious illustrator of his time. Interestingly enough, they both created illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Raven. The side-by-side lay-ups below allow you to judge each man’s work for yourself.
An Inspiring Guide
I’ve focused this post on Doré’s engravings and provided no examples of his painting or sculpture. However, I hope to touch on that part of his work sometime in the future. Today’s experts unequivocally concur that Doré was unique and influential in many ways. Yet, during his lifetime, art critics couldn’t seem to draw any unanimous conclusions about him. He was either applauded for his powerful imagination or denounced for being too original. In hindsight, however, some historians have credited him with shaping the work of more pictorial geniuses than any other 19th-century artist—Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Walt Disney, Terry Gilliam, and Robert Crumb, among them.
Such claims are hard to prove. Whether Doré was the preeminent influencer from his time or not, whether he was a master of fine arts or simply a talented craftsman with a keen eye and steady hand, is left for others to determine. I’m more than happy to remain ignorant about such matters as I revel in the hours that pass getting to know his work.
- La Bibliothèque nationale de France, Exposition de Gustave Doré
- Wikimedia Commons, Gustave Doré
- JeSuisMort.com, Biographie de Gustave Doré
- Youtube, Gustave Doré
- Youtube, Gustave Doré et la gravure
- Book Riot, BEST ILLUSTRATIONS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE’S THE RAVEN
- Lambiek Comiclopedia, Gustave Doré
- Brain Pickings, Gustave Doré’s Hauntingly Beautiful 1883 Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”