Gustave Doré was a French illustrator, caricaturist, painter and sculptor. He was born in 1832, in Strasbourg and died in 1883 in Paris. He starts to draw at a very early age. At first it is little drawings on his school notebooks, but quickly he starts to do draw caricatures inspired by his entourage. It is in 1845 that his first work called Vogue de Brou is published, which depicts animal-like people dancing. Two years later, while he was accompanying his parents on a trip to Paris he meets with Charles Philipon, the founder of the publishing house Aubert, which will offer him to collaborate on Le journal pour rire (The newspaper for laughs), a humorous illustrated publication. This will be his first steps as a professional caricaturist and from that moment he will do many drawings for the satirical press. However even if he is talented, in the 19th century being a caricaturist is perceived badly and he is considered as a secondhand artist.
- Vogue de Brou, drawing and lithography by Gustave Doré, lithography of Ceyzeriat (Bourg), 1845
- Engraved board for the Journal pour rire, by Gustave Doré, 1851
- BnF – Board for the Journal du rire, by Gustave Doré, 1848
It is in 1852 that Gustave Doré starts to do illustrations and quickly embarked on an ambitious project: illustrate the masterpieces of the literature. He will first tackle Oeuvres by François Rabelais (1855) (see illustrations below) and he will create more than 100 drawings. It will be a great success and reveal him as an illustrator. Then he decided to continue this project with The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1860), Don Quichotte by Miguel de Cervantes (1863), Atala by René de Chateaubriand (1863), Les contes de Perrault (Charles Perrault’s Tales) (1867), Paradise Lost by John MIlton (1874), The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (1883) and many more.
The most popular are definitely the illustration he did of Inferno by Dante Alighieri (1861) (see the two top illustrations below) with more than 75 drawings, and the Bible (1866) (see the two bottom illustrations below) with more than 265 drawings. The details and the dramaturgy of his work will fascinate. It will be a turning point in his career and will allow him to gain recognition.
To do his illustrations Gustave Doré is using wood engraving. This technique appears in England at the end of the 18th century and will gradually spread and arrive in France around 1830. At first it is used by romantic illustrator to reproduce drawing with fine lines. Gustave Doré used this technique as an illustrator to embed images in the text. After drawing on hard wood, he gives it to an engraver who will interpret his drawing and carve the wood plate. Progressively this technique will evolve to become what we call tint engrave. It allows to work on gradients, white, grey and black, which is one of the main characteristics of the work of Gustave Doré.
Gustave Doré was also a painter. At first he was mainly painting landscapes, but then his attention will be focused on historical and religious painting. He will use the themes and techniques of classical painting such as chiaroscuro and vanishing point. One of his best known oil paintings is Christ quittant le prétoire.(Christ leaving the praetorium) (1874-1880). The painting is gigantic, nine meters on six meters (29×19). It took him five years to complete. Just as his drawings, his paintings are full of details, they are telling stories and require a visual attention.
- Lac en Écosse après l’orage/Lake in Scotland after the storm (1875 – 1878)
- Christ quittant le prétoire/Christ leaving the praetorium (1874-1880)
- Souvenir du lac Lomond/Remembrance of Lomond Lake (1875)
- Dante et Virgile dans le neuvième cercle de l’Enfer/Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell (1861)
Later in life Gustave Doré will also sculpt. In 1977 he reveals his first sculpture called La Parque et l’Amour. This ambitious sculpturedepicts Eros and Atropos, one of the Fates that cuts the thread of existence. The sculpture deals with classical themes by referring to Greek mythology. He will create sculptures for both trade fairs and commercialisation and his interest for imbalance, dramatization, and the hustle and bustle. He even does not hesitate to add a humorous touch, just like what he was doing with caricatures.
- Sculpture La Parque et l’Amour by Gustave Doré (1977)
- Pendulum Le temps fauchant les amours by Gustave Doré, foundryman Bernoux (1879)
- Sculpture À saute-mouton/Leapfrog by Gustave Doré (1881)
Gustave Doré was a gifted artist successful at everything he undertook. He was curious about everything and that’s probably what made him use all the techniques at his disposal to create and express his artistic identity. This versatility will annoy some of the art critics at the time and awaken Gustave Doré’s frustration regarding the lake of recognition of his work. One wonders whether this search for recognition has not curbed his creativity or if he wasn’t too far ahead of his time. However, it is sure that he has been a source of inspiration for many artists.