The Vision of Death Gustave Doré Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Vision of Death is an illustration by French artist Gustave Doré from circa 1868. It was an entry in the majestic La Grande Bible de Tours publication from around the same period, which itself remains one of the highlights of his career.

The artist would produce around 10,000 illustrations within his lifetime and many of these would be used for book publications, placed alongside texts from classical literature. He would also produce a number of drawings for a French version of the Bible, with The Vision of Death being one of those. The emotional religious content, taken from passages of the Old and New Testament, was ideally suited to this Romanticist artist. He built an impressive reputation within the field of illustrated books and many within France and the UK considered him the first choice for any upcoming projects. He was paid handsomely for his services and took advantage of a period in European history at which levels of education within the general population would rise dramatically. The majority of his commissions would be related to new publications of relatively recent literature, making his work on La Grande Bible de Tours a slightly unusual request.

The impact made by this series was considerable. It became very well known within the general public and helped to spread the reputation of Doré himself. Many theatrical productions that followed on after would be lead by the visual work of Doré within the book, meaning he had actually influenced the way in which we saw the passages of the Bible within our own minds. He produced 241 drawings in total, and in recent years a particular focus has been afforded to The Vision of Death in particular. That said, the overall series is impressively consistent in its quality and Doré was somehow able to retain his enthusiasm and creativity throughout this extensive project. It would have been impossible for him to also work on the engravings too, and so he would hand these drawings over to others who specialised in that process that would eventually lead to the publication of this new book. Many consider Doré's La Grande Bible de Tours to have been amongst his finest achievements, with each individual plate being worthy of attention in its own right.

At the time of this series in 1866, the artist would have been in his early to mid thirties and by now was a fully established professional artist with a long list of enthusiastic patrons, many of whom represented notable publishers within London and Paris. He would produce many of his greatest works within this small window, including Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy and Milton's Paradise Lost at around the same time. In order to achieve such a huge body of work for the various publishers, Doré would call upon the services of a large workshop who would help out with the other phases of his projects. In the case of The Vision of Death, though, the next phase specifically fell to Héliodore Pisan who performed the task of transitioning the designs into engraved wood which could then be used for the printing process. He would leave his own signature on these engravings as a mark of the importance of his own role and also the levels of expertise required for that stage of development. Their process of production continues to be studied today by those looking to understand the methods used by the old masters, with Doré himself considered to have been one of the finest book illustrators in history.

Table of Contents

  1. Description of the Artwork
  2. Gustave Doré's Illustrated Bible Series
  3. The Vision of Death, Revelation 6:7-8 Explained
  4. When was The Vision of Death produced?
  5. Where is the Engraving Today?
  6. Who Engraved The Vision of Death?
  7. Large Image of The Vision of Death

Description of the Artwork

The Vision of Death by Gustave Doré depicts Death, the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, followed by Hades. He is placed within the centre of this Romanticist drawing, with bright light reflecting around his body. His horse pushes onwards, and heads towards the right hand side. Many more figures trail behind in the distance, forming a trail which slowly disappears into the background. They are joined by a number of clouds which are particularly prominent at the very bottom of this artwork. They help to illustrate the setting of this scene, which is high up in the night sky. This shocking and frightening scene would be signed in the bottom left corner by the artist, and the later engraving would then carry the engraver's signature signature additionally, placed in the bottom right corner. Those fortunate enough to see detailed images of this drawing will be able to see some incredible detail which the artist added throughout this scene which helps to capture the dark atmosphere of this tale from Revelation 6:7-8 in The New Testament. The artist also carefully applied the impact of bright light in order to lead our eyes towards Death and his light coloured horse. The other figures just provide support to the main focal point and represent Hades.

Gustave Doré's Illustrated Bible Series

A French-language version of the 4th century Vulgate Bible was produced in 1843 as known as the Bible de Tours. Two decades later it was released alongside a wealth of drawings by Gustave Doré in a grand publication which would prove popular right across France. It would help to make household names of both Gustave Doré and it's engraver, Héliodore Pisan. Mame were responsible for the publishing of this book within France and it was also released in the UK in the same year through Cassell & Company. The total artistic output included 139 plates which depicted scenes from the Old Testament, with an additional 81 from the New Testament. The likes of Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, Mark and Luke are all featured within the carefully selected list of artworks which provides an impressive survey of Christian artistic themes. These individual artworks have been reproduced many times over right across the world and some more recent artists have used them as inspiration for their own religious-based art. Gustave Doré chose to accept this commission because of the wealth of dramatic scenes which were offered within the Bible, giving him an almost endless wealth of opportunities which were well suited to his Romanticist artistic style.

The Vision of Death, Revelation 6:7-8 Explained

The sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation describes the opening of the first six of the seven seals. As the first four of the seals are opened, so the Four horses and their riders, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are unleashed upon the world. The fourth and final Horseman is named Death and he is not described as being armed within the Bible. However, many illustrators have depicted him with a scythe, and Doré does precisely that here. Therefore, the title of this piece as The Vision of Death, refers precisely to the horseman himself. Hades, or Hell is the resting place of the dead and this is symbolised by the bodies in the background who follow on behind. For these reasons, the artwork is also somtimes known as Death on the Pale Horse and this artist's interpretation became so well known that it would also influence how other, later artists would cover it within their own careers.

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see...
...And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Revelation 6:7-8, King James Version

When was The Vision of Death produced?

La Grande Bible de Tours was published in 1866. The Vision of Death was just one of 180 engravings produced by Doré and Pisan that would bring the texts to life. Interesingly, the publication was so well received in both the UK and France that the artist decided to organise an exhibition of his work in London in the following year and eventually a Dore gallery would be realised. He had now become the leading illustrator in both nations and was able to be selective about which commissions he took on. Several further major releases came from his studio in 1866 and 1867, marking perhaps the highest point of his career. In the following decades his La Grande Bible de Tours would be widely distributed around Europe and many more editions were produced, with it still in publication today, more than a century later. It remains one of the highlights of this artist's career and also helped to bring fame to Héliodore Pisan, who was the lead engraver for this project.

Where is the Engraving Today?

We have been unable to locate the original engravings that were used to publish the French translation. On a more positive note, however, new editions of the publication continue to be released regularly, even in the present day, and provide an enticing introduction to themes from the Bible, because of the impressive illustrations that sit alongside the texts. Several publishers in both the US and Europe have continued to find large audiences for items such as this and tend to aim their books in the premium market, using some of the finest printing techniques currently available. There has also been an increased interest in antique books, perhaps as a natural reaction to the dominance of modern technnology within all of our lives today, with many wishing to return to the times in which life was a little simpler. Several publishers have looked to take advantage of this niche interest which has, ironically, been aided by the opportunities of selling online to an international audience.

Who Engraved The Vision of Death?

Héliodore Pisan, ten years younger than Doré, would complete the engravings for the La Grande Bible de Tours series. Relatively little is known about his career but the presence of his signature throughout the etchings in this collection has certainly brought about considerable interest in him over the past century. We do know that he was born in Marseille in 1822 and worked as a specialist wood engraver. He had also been exhibiting some of his creations as the Salon since around 1849, meaning he would have been well known by the time that he met Doré. There are some examples of landscape paintings from his career as well, and he is also regarded as having been instrumental in the development of a technique known as tint engraving. Pisan received the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1883 and was one of a number of engravers within his family. Whilst producing engravings for Doré, he was positioned as lead engraver, and was given a number of assistants who he would oversee in order to make sure that the large bodies of work that they took on could be completed in a timely manner.

Large Image of The Vision of Death

The image below is the largest that we could find of the original artwork, The Vision of Death by Gustave Doré. Although famous, this artist has not been covered in as much detail as most other major names, and so finding good quality images of his work has been a real challenge. Most of the pictures of his work on Wikipedia are also not in a particularly high resolution, and may have been added many years ago. Thankfully the large image featured here is good enough to get across the beauty of this particular artwork, and to see some of the original touches made by the artist all those years ago. Gustave Doré was a highly prolific artist and so there are still some high resolution items dotted about his career, due to the sheer amount of work that he completed across a wide number of publications, paintings, sculptures and more. Some of his illustrated books continue to be printed today, many years later, and these can often be the best way of enjoying his work in its original form. There are also some books about his career which summarise his achievements and provide insights into his most famous paintings and illustrations.

The Vision of Death in Detail Gustave Doré