Gustave Doré, Illustrious Illustrator Dismissed by the Elite

Le Peitit Poisson et le Pêcheur
Le Peitit Poisson et le Pêcheur, by Gustave Doré

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.

Page from le Journal pour rire
Page from le Journal pour rire, by Gustave Doré

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.

Master of Imagination, cover
Gustave Doré, Master of Imagination

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.

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

22 Comments

  1. I own a family Bible from the eighteen fifties with several Dore engravings.

    • How wonderful! I saw online images of various old leather-bound editions of books illustrated by Doré and thought how nice it would be to own one.

      In writing this post, there was so much I left out, including the fact that Doré made many illustrations for the Bible. Thanks for indirectly pointing that out.

  2. Doré was quite a master in his time. I have a modern edition of Les Fables de La Fontaine illustrated by him… Book must weigh 6-8 pounds!
    Bon week-end Carol

  3. Fantastic! I had no idea Manet illustrated Poe.

  4. Fascinating post, thank you!

  5. Charles Philipon is an interesting person in the history of illustration. He had an artistic background and I think this is why he was so successful in selecting gifted illustrators like Gustave Doré. My favorite Dorés are the darkest subjects . Philipon’s interest in the new medium of lithography gave us wonderful works by Honoré Daumier.

    • Thanks for your comment Laura. There’s so much more I’d like to know about this art form and the people that mastered it. I appreciate you steering me in the direction of Philipon and Daumier. I will definitely check them out further. From the little I know it seems like Philipon treated Doré with respect and fairness and even supported Doré’s departure from his journal.

      Doré does seem to have a wickedly dark side to many of his works. I like the one in my post where Don Quixote has cut the giants in half and you can see their guts spilling out.

  6. Thanks for illuminating us about this extremely gifted illustrator. Had no idea he was so prolific!

    • Glad you enjoyed it Hilde. I feel as though I only skimmed the surface. It was an impossible task trying to figure out which etchings to show. The man’s imagination was off the charts.

  7. You may have only “skimmed the surface,” but for me this was a wonderful introduction to a versatile talent about whom I knew nothing. I especially enjoyed the side-by -side renderings of Manet’s work and Dore’s.

    It’s sad to think of such an accomplished artist apparently never gaining the recognition that would have been most meaningful to him. But that’s not an unusual story.

    • You’re right that Doré’s story is sad but not unusual. He did, however, have many admirers in his day. Far more, say, than poor van Gogh whose Doré knock-off closes my post. Genius comes in many forms. I hope that as a species we’re getting better at recognizing it. Thanks for your comment Annie.

  8. The copy of the Doré reveals how Van Gogh learned to draw. He copied illustrations from newspapers, not famous works from the Louvre or in an academic setting. He did many images after Daumier’s cartoons.
    It may have irked Doré that he did not win the esteem of the official art world, but at least he is much more well-known than those who did–even today. He is not the only artist who was extremely popular, yet not part of the official world. Horace Vernet was almost a household word during the Restoration and later, yet he is unknown outside the world of specialists. Both men won the money prize and popularity by appealing to the masses. Sometimes the official world held that against artists.

    • Thanks for your insights Laura. Doré’s work has clearly withstood the test of time. I’d never heard of him but many have and at least his name is far more recognizable today than those of the scholars whose approval he sought.

  9. Hard to imagine anyone not recognizing Dore’s brilliance!

  10. Whenever I come across Dore’s work I’m deeply impressed. A true genius.
    I had not known his work was neglected by his contemporaries.
    Since he did not take the classical route he forfeited the blessing of institutions and their circle of connections. Jealousy?
    Recognition for one’s work and skill within the subculture of any field provides a sense of belonging. Not being given this recognition is especially hard for artists.
    This also brings to mind how self-published writers are sidelined by publishers, competitions, and the media.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, Doré was clearly superior to many artists that received the academic stamp of approval. It’s sad that his popular success was not enough to satisfy him. You make an excellent point that many artists worthy of “official” recognition never get it and they take such oversights personally. Nevertheless, they continue to work. Thankfully, Doré’s work lives on and he never became discouraged enough to give up on his craft.

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