Gustave Doré is one of the most famous illustrators of all time, and he would stretch his natural talents across a wide range of artistic disciplines. He is perhaps best known for a number of book illustrations, though he was also heavily involved in printmaking as well.
The style of his content was undoubtably Romanticist in nature, with sprawling landscapes and emotive content which was fairly typical of 19th century France. The biggest achievement from his prolific career would have to be the illustrated books that he worked on across his lifetime, which totalled nearly 100. These exceptionally detailed creations would be developed into published books with the aid of his large studio of assistants. Doré would tackle a wide range of themes within his work, focusing on both religious narratives as well as more modern commentary. This ambitious and equally curious man would also learn the techniques of sculpture, oil painting and watercolours to a high degree, bringing further variety to his oeuvre. Doré's career stands out as relatively unique within French 19th century art because of his mastery of multiple mediums alongside his impressive knowledge with regards the techniques of printmaking. Alonside all this, there were also cartoons, caricatures and other printing techniques such as lithographs which took his skills as a draughtsman into many different avenues of artistic expression.
Doré held a great experise in different printing techniques but in order to keep up with the demands on his services he would inevitably need to bring in additional support. Once his reputation has soared he would enjoy commissions from major figures all across Europe and he needed help to translate his drawings into woodblocks for the purposes of publishing each book. With around 10,000 illustrations having come from his hand, he would start to move into more of a supervisory role in which apprentices would complete more and more of his tasks, as he watched on. Generally, all of these artworks would be given his own signature, even if most of the work had been completed by other members of his studio. This has inevitably led to some confusion with regards the correct attribution of his work, but there remains little doubt over the individual elements of his most famous series of drawings. He would eventually provide illustrations for works by Cervantes, Rabelais, Balzac, Milton, and Dante as well as a large project which brought the Bible to live in a breaktaking contribution.
This artist is highly regarded within the field of book illustration and considered by some to have been the true master of this art form. His concentration on this, over the likes of painting or sculpture, is perhaps why many in the mainstream are unaware of his career, but to those knowledgeable on literature, illustration and the history of the printing process, he remains one of the biggest talents to have appeared over the past few centuries. Those studying artistic techniques will often focus on draughtsman initially, and this will also normally bring Gustave Doré to their attention. One might argue that the style of his work has not remained as fashionable as other members of the Romanticist movement, with monotone colour schemes and some references to religious content, but the impressive nature of his technical ability remains enough to garner a considerable following even in the present day. He remains regarded as one of France's greatest artists and in 1861 he was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in honour of this. Many continue to be captivated by his work in combining the best of 19th century art and literature together in some breathtaking publications.
Gustave Doré was born in 1832 and lived until 1883. The artist was from Strasbourg but moved several times in order to make the most of his professional career, including several periods in the UK. He was something of a prodigy and immediately showed considerable promise as a draughtsman. Over the course of his life he would find many avenues in which to take this natural ability, though many of his choices were driven by the requests of his many patrons. He formed significant bonds with some major publishers in both France and the UK and they would seek his services to illustrate some high profile publications of highly regarded literature from the likes of Cervantes, Rabelais, Balzac, Milton, and Dante. This provided his main source of income, but on the side Doré would also master other artistic forms which provided him with further avenues of expression. Little is known about his private life, and his strongest bond remained with his mother throughout, with no wife or children to speak of. He established a large network of artist assistants in order to keep up with an increasing body of work brought on by his burgeoning list of patrons.
The artist worked on a large number of publications across his career, with some of the highlights including the likes of The Bible, Dante's Divine Comedy, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Perrault's Fairy Tales, Don Quixote, London, a Pilgrimage, Paradise Lost, Contes Drolatiques, Fables de La Fontaine and Tennyson's Elaine. He would produce many hundreds of drawings for the larger commissions and he was very well paid by a number of publishers for these services. His romanticist style of art, which persisted throughout the many artistic disciplines in which he was involved, was ideally suited to some of these themes and he was also adaptable enough to cater to quite different needs. Education was starting to spread to the masses during the 19th century, with a much larger proportion of society being able to read and write for the first time. This was good timing for Doré, as his partnerships with publishers could now prove much more fruitful. Doré's book illustrations were so breaktakingly detailed that it would have been impossible for him to construct around 10,000 illustrations whilst also creating the woodblocks from them which would ultimately transfer his designs into each published book. A studio were therefore set up where he could take on the equally considerable task of managing these projects and outputting large numbers of books which also met his high technical standards.
One of the highlights of Doré's book illustrations would have to be his La Grande Bible de Tours, in which he produced 241 wood engravings for an 1866 French publication of The Bible. All of the Christian-inspired themes that one is familiar from the history of European art are present here, and all feature the Frenchman's incredible level of detail which became one of his hallmarks. As a Romanticist artist, this dramatic content was ideally suited to his style and we do know that he placed particular importance on this commission. The artist would cover elements of the Old and New Testament, with this highly successful publication being reproduced right across the world many time over. It is believed to have been amongst Gustave Doré's most influential creations and was widely known at the time, even amongst the general public. Such was the success of this series, that the individual designs have actually been given considerable exposure in their own right, with some of the highlights including the likes of The Creation of Light and The Vision of Death. The Bible (La Grande Bible de Tours) was released in France and the UK simultaneously and immediately drew praise and respect from most quarters.
Dante's Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) was a 14th century Italian poem which many consider to be one of the greatest works of literature in European history. Gustave Doré put together a series of engravings to bring this piece of classical literature to life and worked on this project between the years of 1861–1868. As with his work on religious themes, Dante's descriptions of the afterlife were ideally suited to the dramatic artistic style of the Frenchman. The poem narrative itself was constructed from three cantiche – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise) and the etcher set about completing each section one at a time across the 1860s. Elements from the original work that he completed can be found in some small art collections in London, whilst the publications that came from the published books have been dispersed right across the globe. The artist would only have been in his early thirties at the time of this commission, making it one of his largest early projects, and it remains a key part of his oeuvre.
Don Quixote is a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes from the early 17th century. It was a groundbreaking publication and in the 1860s a French version was published, carrying the accompanying work of Doré alongside the translated text. The impact made by this new publication is known to have influenced how others viewed the original texts, and theatrical plays would often refer to Doré's depictions as inspiration for their own productions. In total, it is believed that approximately 500 illustrations were created for this single project alone, with the French artist then handing them over to a number of skilled woodcutters who could prepare the designs for their inclusion within the printed book. Over time he arrived upon a select few that he could trust to implement his designs with care and precision and they would be re-employed across multiple projects, and there was no shortage of requests for his services as his artistic reputation continued to spread right across Europe.
London, a Pilgrimage
One of the highlights from his many illustrated books would have to be London, a Pilgrimage. Gustave Doré completed 180 illustrations for this commission which would be turned into wood engravings for the printing phase. The book itself was launched in 1872 and featured a commentary on life in London at that time, with a strong focus on the poorer sections of society who had long been ignored by others artists and writers up to that point. Some critics were offended by a Frenchman revealing the poverty in London at the time, but in later years this series would become highly regarded. London, a Pilgrimage is still available in print form today, more than a century and a half since Doré put this series of exquisite drawings together. The artist's legendary use of detail allows historians to really understand what life was like for the city's poor at that time, making this publication a highly valued item in learning more about the country in the 19th century with an honesty which was rare to find at the time.
In around 1866, Gustave Doré produced fifty illustrations for John Milton's Paradise Lost. This was a 17th century poem which ran across ten books. This landmark piece of literature would inspire many artists, with elements of Paradise Lost appearing in the work of painters and illustrators such as William Blake, Henry Fuseli and John Martin. The poem itself, of both an extraordinary length and quality, was the greatest achievement of Milton's career and focused on the Bible's tale of the Fall of Man. Doré himself would address themes from both literature and religion and so sometimes these might overlap. Doré built up a strong relationship with publishers in the UK as well as his native France and so opportunities would appear in both countries, with levels of education starting to spread across both societies. His work on this Milton classic came just after several other high profile projects which had already placed him as perhaps the most in-demand illustrator of his time.
Wood engravings were an essential part of the commercial activities of Gustave Doré, taking him from a supremely talented draughtsman to someone whose work could appear in thousands of homes all across Europe. He would tend to hire others for the labour intensive phase of taking his designs and turning them into wood blocks, ready for the printing phase. He would spend so much time in perfecting his drawings that he would have to oversee the production of these engravings with much the same level of precision. Nothing could leave his studio without his agreement, and many designs went unsigned when he was unsatisfied with the work of his apprentices. The engravings left over from this process are particularly valuable today, both in monetary terms but also in helping us to learn more about his own process. This intensive, time consuming approach is rarely seen today and these woodblocks serve as historical items from the early printing press. Some collections are even able to display the engravings alongside the final publications, helping visitors to understand how Gustave Doré completed perhaps the largest body of work from a varied and interesting career. The use of engravings connects this French artist to techniques from previous centuries, helping to preserve many traditional artistic methods for years to come.
The artist would also help out on the production of lithographs of his original designs. This method was invented in Germany in the previous century and arrived many years after popular alternatives such as etching, mezzotint and aquatint. With so many of his illustration commissions being linked to book publications, it would be necessary for Doré to oversee the transition of his designs into printed form. The reproduction of his illustrations into multiple forms served as advertising for his own name, helping to create a brand that would help him to attract more commissions in the future. This has helped numerous artists over the years, such as Rembrandt, who have been able to make small sums of money from lower levels of society, who would not have been able to afford their original paintings. A large number of famous artists over the years have made use of lithography for their printing needs as part of their experimentation with some of the different methods available, including the likes of Edvard Munch, Adalbert Seitz, William L. Breton and Odilon Redon.
The artist was highly regarded for his paintings within his own lifetime, but these titles tend to be overshadowed by his illustrations today. He worked predominantly in oils, with some watercolours also present, and his painting style was very much in the Romanticist method. He produced a number of genre paintings as well as scenes that focused on literature and religion. He was perhaps most accomplished as a landscape painter and it was in this format that Romanticist era was most impressive, with sprawling landscapes and a bold use of lighting. There would almost be a spiritual quality to some of these depictions, just as much as in his tales from the Bible, for example. He also mastered figurative art which lay within many of his compositions across different genres. One can find a variety of influences within his paintings, and this body of work would have been enough for Doré to achieve success as a professional artist, even without all of the other directions in which his career took him. Doré paintings tend to be found within smaller, provincial galleries which perhaps underlines where the main focus on his career today resides.
Doré grew frustrated during his own lifetime at how his work in sculpture was not afforded the same respect as his illustrations and engravings, however hard he tried. Although today we have a broader, deeper understanding of his life and career, his sculptures remain sidelined to a certain degree, with most publications on his life continuing to refer to them as a sidenote. His sculptures were impressive in actual fact, and this art form allowed him to take his romanticist ideas and translate them into the third dimension - an opportunity to good for this artist to turn down. His output was also heavily skewed towards illustration, in part because of how this would prove to be the most profitable, and so we were not left with a huge selection of sculptures or paintings from his prolific career. What we do have is a surprisingly wide mixture of ideas and materials, suggesting that he was still attempting to find his chosen path within this discipline. The artist's reputation was built in other areas, but he could use it to his advantage in gained sculpture commissions, though in truth this always remained something of a niche which perhaps should not feature within the highlights of his career.
Issues over Attribution
There has been considerable confusion over some of the works of Gustave Doré in part because of his collaboration with assistants from his studio. Most of their involvement would not be documented and typically he would always sign the artworks that came from his studio, even when his own contribution was in more of an advisory capacity. This approach was certainly not new to the art world, and had been the case ever since artists started to enjoy a sort of celebrity status during the European Renaissance, but it proved a big problem to art historians nonetheless. We do know, however, that the artist would only ever sign work from his studio when it met his expectations, and so items without his name would surely have been produced by someone else. In some cases the roles played would be clear, and in others, not. He would regularly produce all of the illustrations and allow others to complete the next stage of turning them into wooden blocks for the printing process. With over a century having passed since his death, it now appears unlikely that many of these questionmarks on his lesser known pieces will ever be solved.
It must be said that Gustave Doré was a truly unique artist, and that comparisons to others are hard to make. One perhaps might consider the likes of Albrecht Durer to be connected to the Frenchman because of his own technical brilliance and mastery of a number of different artistic disciplines. Durer himself was involved with engravings, drawing and watercolours, and there was certainly some cross over with regards the content that they covered. Secondly, and someone who was closer to the era of Gustave Doré is William Blake, a British illustrator who also worked with watercolours and was famous for combining illustrations with classical literature. All three of these great names achieved levels of technical brilliance that had not really been seen before and they were also curious and ambitious enough to carry their skills of illustration into a wide number of different forms. All achieved success within their own lifetimes, but are perhaps more respected today than ever before, now that we have a more rounded, open-minded approach to judging art from previous centuries. They will also be regularly seen in national exhibitions across Europe and the US, helping to strengthen their prominence for years to come.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.