Biography of Gustave Dore
The French artist Gustave Dore (1832-1883) is well known for his illustrations of famous authors ranging from Dante, Milton. Cervantes, and La Fontaine to Hugo and Tennyson, not to mention the Bible. Perhaps without realizing it, many people can easily recognize Doré’s imagery in the subsequent work of such filmmakers as Cecil B.
DeMille, Walt Disney, and Terry Gilliam, not to mention the Harry Potter movies. He has also loomed large over more than a century’s worth of caricaturists and comic strip illustrators.
Such a legacy might be enough for some, yet this dapper, self-taught artist was also a highly individual and prolific painter and sculptor of his own inventions.
Now, for the first time in a major museum. Gustave Dore is the focus of a 100-object, no-expense-spared retrospective that allows us to fully appreciate the breadth of his creativity. Titled Gustave Doré: Master of Imagination, this show opened in the spring at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay and has transferred, in a somewhat different form, to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa, where it will remain on view through September 14. It has been co-organized by NGC chief curator Paul Lang with Orsay chief curator Edouard Papet. And the Swiss expert Philippe Kaenel. Since the exhibition has no U.S. venue, readers of Fine Art Connoisseur had best make the trip north soon. Because such an assemblage is unlikely to be repeated, ever.
As evidenced by his many book illustrations, Gustave Dore had a marked taste for the grotesque and the bizarre. In fact, his final project was illustrating an English-language edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Another of Doré’s distinguishing features was odd perspectives. And indeed he seems to have had a lifelong fascination with aerial views, often depicting birds and other flying creatures. These two qualities come together in an early and wonderful small painting. Between Heaven and Earth, which shows a frog attached to a floating kite, about to be dispatched by an approaching stork. In this dizzying and madly original vista, we gaze down at Earth with its tiny people flying kites; visible beyond is the cathedral of Strasbourg, in the shadow of which Doré himself grew up.
Since he went off to Paris to begin his career as a prodigy at age 15, Doré may well have harbored an innate sympathy with children, which would probably explain one of his most haunting subjects, The Saltimbanques (or The Wounded Child). He treated this theme in two different canvases, which, fortunately, have been reunited for the exhibition. (One was recently acquired by the Denver Art Museum; the other, more complex, version is from the French city of Clermont-Ferrand.)
This reunion offers a rare opportunity to discover what a brilliant painter Doré could be. We cannot help but admire the realistic presentation of textures and details in this tragic scene of a child street performer. Who, having been hurt in a fall, is now being tended by his mother and an entourage of theatrical pets. This motif is very much in the spirit of his older French contemporary Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), and many scholars, including the late Robert Rosenblum, have suggested that Doré’s two paintings may have influenced Pablo Picasso’s later scenes of street clowns.
Doré’s gifts were protean, so he was equally at ease painting portraits, landscapes, and religious and mythological subjects. If he is remembered at all today, it is usually for his illustrations of the Bible, published in 1866 with nearly 250 plates. Translated editions of it have appeared in almost every language; indeed, it was once so well known that Mark Twain (who owned prints by Doré) referred to it as “The Doré Bible” in Tom Sawyer without explanation.
The popularity of Gustave Dore ’s religious illustrations encouraged him to paint enormous and offbeat canvases, especially from the life of Christ.
A striking example is Calvary (Crucifixion), with its distant perspective on the tragic event presented with a Rembrandtesque treatment of light. Though they never elicited positive reviews at the Paris Salon, Doré’s religious paintings got a major boost when they were shown in London. The one-man Doré Gallery opened there in 1869, and English visitors proved extremely receptive, such that Doré added one or two new attractions to it every year until his death 14 years later.
The very first work he painted especially for the Doré Gallery is on view in Ottawa — The Triumph of Christianity over Paganism. Paul Lang observes that, though it is based on Renaissance prototypes by Raphael and Bassano, this composition is actually an encyclopedic compendium of the world’s pagan faiths overcome by Christ and his heavenly hosts. It has been loaned by that great repository of 19th-century academic art, Ontario’s Art Gallery of Hamilton, which received the extensive collection of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum a decade ago. From the same institution comes The Monk’s Dream, an example of “religious genre painting,” an entire category that Doré created himself. Like the similar Neophyte on loan from Los Angeles’s cathedral, this picture shows a young cleric playing the organ while haunted by the specter of the lovely maiden he once rejected.
While religion featured prominently in Gustave Dore ’s oeuvre, he did not shy away from painting sensual subjects. A pair of nudes, Andromeda and Paolo and Francesca, appeared at the Doré Gallery, but hanging at Ottawa now is perhaps his most overtly sexy composition, Oceanids.
Inspired by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, it shows the daughters of the Titans disporting themselves around the rock on which Prometheus has been chained to have his liver devoured by a vulture forever.
This beautifully odd scene was once owned by the Parisian aristocrat Landolfo Carcano. And more recently (and rather appropriately) by the New York Surrealist painter/poet Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012).
Like his famous actress friend Sarah Bernhardt, Doré decided to take up sculpture in the 1870s. He produced bronzes and terra cottas, evolving from curious conceptions of leaping and flying figures to large-scale groups like the memorial to the writer Alexandre Dumas the Elder. Yet Doré’s most ambitious sculptural undertaking was The Poem of the Vine. A gigantic vase shaped like a wine bottle and decorated with writhing nudes and cherubs inspired by scenes from Rabelais.
Its plaster model, tinted green to emulate bronze, was first shown at the Paris Salon of 1878; four years later, that same venue featured the enormous bronze version, which weighs nearly three tons. Following Gustave Dore ’s death, the latter was sent to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). Then to San Francisco’s California Midwinter International Exposition (1894). Rather than assuming the great expense of shipping it back to France, the foundry sold it to the San Francisco philanthropist Michael de Young, who donated it to his own city.
Somehow The Poem of the Vine has survived several earthquakes and has remained a key artistic element. Both indoors and out, at both of San Francisco’s art museums. Since 2005, it has been displayed just outside the rebuilt de Young Museum. But now — amazingly enough — it has been loaned to Ottawa. One cannot help but admire the gumption of everyone involved in moving this gigantic masterwork safely.
Lest we imagine that Doré lived in an isolated world of fantasy, an entire section of the exhibition demonstrates that he was keenly aware of the terrible political and social events transpiring around him. Especially the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune of 1870-71. Though he was distraught that his native region of Alsace had been lost to Germany, it was the tragedy that befell all of France that elicited his most impassioned responses. Doré sketched and painted many scenes of suffering, most crucially the allegorical triptych Souvenir of the Year 1870. Its three canvases are now being exhibited together for the first time in many years.
The two horizontal wings are The Black Eagle of Prussia (Dahesh Museum of Art). And The Enigma (Musée d’Orsay), which flank the somber vertical centerpiece. The Defense of Paris, from the museum at Vassar College. In the last, which explicitly evokes Eugène Delacroix’s iconic Liberty Leading the People (1830). France is embodied by a heroic, winged woman. Surrounded by battered and dying soldiers, she clutches the French tricolore flag. Which offers, with its accents of blue and red, the only color relieving this otherwise monochromatic composition.
Gustave Dore frequently sought inspiration outside France, so his retrospective offers many scenes from Switzerland, Spain, and England. What most delighted him were landscapes. And from his youth he painted mountain scenes set in the Vosges, Alps, and Pyrenees. But his ultimate inspiration came during a 10-week trip to Scotland in 1873. Its heather-covered mountains, gray lochs, turbulent skies. And uninhabited vistas stimulated a magnificent outpouring of large oils and of small, gem-like — almost abstract — watercolor washes.
One of the most thrilling of these oils is Souvenir of Loch Lomond. Which so dramatically captures the effects of a storm brewing over a glistening lake. Here (quite unusually for Doré), we spy a tiny hunter, seated on the foreground rock and literally overwhelmed by nature’s grandeur. It seems certain that Doré had studied the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, and thus chose to create his own sublime renderings that now fill an entire gallery.
In Ottawa, one newly discovered painting has been added — a late, haunting scene of eagles gathering around an isolated mountaintop. Which has (fortuitously) been purchased by a private collector willing to lend it.
A visit to Ottawa this summer is absolutely necessary to appreciate this late-in-life return to the theme of flight, not to mention all of Doré’s other accomplishments. His imagery has long inspired illustrators and filmmakers around the world; now it is time for him to reconnect with connoisseurs of great paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints.