Gustave Doré’s illustrious imagination

Nadar, Gustave Doré (1832–1883), c. 1856–58. Gelatin silver print, 20.6 × 15 cm. NGC. Gift of Dorothy Meigs Eidlitz, St. Andrews, New Brunswick, 1968 (32337)


When Gustave Doré was only eight years old, he organized a re-enactment of a grand procession in his hometown of Strasbourg, France. Gathering together his schoolmates, he decorated four chariots with banners, and made himself head of an artists’ guild. Perched on his cart, young Gustave made quick sketches and distributed them to an applauding crowd. Years later, the artist would look back on his early dream of fame and adoration, recalling to a childhood friend, “That was the time when you all told me I should make a great painter.”

Doré’s friends were not far off the mark back then in 1841, for he would become an accomplished painter indeed, as well as a printmaker, watercolourist and sculptor. Primarily, however, Gustave Doré would be celebrated as an extraordinary illustrator with a wild imagination, a creator of fantastic beings and places, the founding father of comic book art, and an inspiration to great filmmakers.

Now, an ambitious exhibition, Gustave Doré (1832—1883): Master of Imagination, brings together 100 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings by this influential 19th-century French artist. Co-organized by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the NGC, which holds 10 works by Doré, this is the first comprehensive Doré retrospective: one that promises to give visitors a better understanding of Doré’s entire extravagant oeuvre, and how it all fits together. The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue containing over 20 essays by international experts.

Gustave Doré, “Help! Help! The Marquis of Carabas is drowning!,” 1864. Frontispiece for Le Maître chat ou Le Chat botté [The Master Cat or Puss in Boots]. Published in Contes [Fairy Tales], by Charles Perrault. Wood engraving, engraved by Adolphe François Pannemaker (1822–1900). Hetzel, Paris; folio, 44.2 × 33.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1969 (69.708.32). Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY


Gustave Doré was eccentric, obsessive, multi-talented, prolific—he created some 10,000 illustrations in his short life—and aesthetically daring. A child prodigy, he drew caricatures at the age of five, and by fifteen had landed a three-year contract with the Parisian weekly Journal pour rire. This four-page newspaper consisted mainly of comical drawings, and had a mission to keep its readers “in a state of permanent joviality, extremely good for the health,” according to an ad at the time. With Doré on board, circulation soared.

In his early twenties, Doré began painting huge social-realist paintings. He became a professional book illustrator, taking on the canon of European literature with works by Dante, Rabelais, La Fontaine, Cervantes, Milton, Shakespeare, Tennyson and Hugo. His illustrated edition of the Bible was hugely successful. By the 1860s, Doré was at the centre of Parisian life. He met Napoleon III, Alexandre Dumas. Liszt, Rossini and Wagner, had a relationship with Sarah Bernhardt, and threw lively parties. He took up sculpture in 1877, just six years before his death of a heart attack at age 51.

Organized thematically, Master of the Imagination leads visitors through each of the major subjects and media Doré explored throughout his 35-year career: his early caricatures and satirical drawings, literary illustrations, landscape paintings, monumental religious paintings and scenes of the devastating Franco-Prussian War, images of Victorian London and sculptures.

Gustave Doré, The Poem of the Vine (detail), 1877–82. Bronze, 396.2 × 208.3 × 208.3 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of M.H. de Young (53696). Photo: Benjamin Blackwell


The first room serves as an overture of sorts, introducing visitors to the key themes that preoccupied Doré. It starts on an exuberant, fortissimo note with The Poem of the Vine, a massive bronze vase almost touching the ceiling and covered in a riot of baroque decoration. Weighing in at almost three tonnes, The Poem of the Vine was, at the time of its creation, the largest bronze sculpture ever, and is arguably Doré’s most original and ambitious work. “It’s in a class of its own,” says Paul Lang, the Gallery’s Chief Curator, and co-curator of the exhibition.

Conceived as a tribute to French winemakers, the sculpture recounts the story of their craft. At the base of the carafe-shaped vase, a teeming mass of rats, snakes, insects and arachnids threatens the vines. On the belly, numerous putti press the grapes through their hands, aided by bacchantes and satyrs and linked together by leafy vines. At the top, on the lip of the vase, sit two triumphant and possibly inebriated putti.

“It’s full of imagination and phantasmagoria,” says Lang, “and the tension between phantasmagoria and hyper-realism is really striking. It’s not a Neoclassical work. It doesn’t embody the idea of ideal beauty. Rather, it’s highly eclectic. It’s reminiscent of Italian Mannerist sculpture, or of Dalou, or Carpeaux.”

Gustave Doré, The Street Performers, 1874. Oil on canvas, 224 × 184 cm. Collection of the Musée d’art Roger-Quilliot, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand (2714). Photo © Josse / Leemage


In the next room hangs The Street Performers, perhaps the most moving work in the exhibition. A child acrobat lies dying in the arms of his mother after tumbling from a tightrope, his face blanched against the rich colours and textures of his parents’ costumes. The circus is fertile ground for art, as Daumier, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas and Chagall have all found. Doré himself was a nimble acrobat (as well as a gifted musician). But his interest in the child performer as victim of his parents’ avarice probably stems from his concern for child labourers, especially in Dickensian Britain. “The circus child became, in a way, emblematic of a whole class of children,” says Erika Dolphin, Associate Curator of European Art at the NGC, and one of the exhibition’s organizers.

Throughout the gallery space are reminders of Doré’s profound influence on cinema. Film clips shown on monitors are juxtaposed with the illustrations that inspired them. Puss ‘n’ Boots from Shrek 2; Beauty descending the staircase in La Belle et la Bête; and London’s teeming streets in Oliver Twist are among the dozens of sequences featured. In the history of cinema, almost every movie about the Bible, and almost every film adaptation of Dante or Don Quixote, has used Doré’s illustrations as a model. “The longevity of his imagery is quite astounding,” says Dolphin. Many critics have posited that, if Doré had lived longer, he would most certainly have become a film scenographer. The Gallery will be showing a number of these films in their entirety on Thursdays and Sundays throughout the summer.

Gustave Doré, Lake in Scotland after a Storm, 1875–78. Oil on canvas, 90 × 130 cm.  Musée de Grenoble. Gift of Dr Fuzier, 1880 (MG 711). Photo © Musée de Grenoble  


A room devoted to Doré’s landscapes is calming and familiar. “It’s an oasis from the more dramatic works,” Dolphin says. Large, richly coloured canvases show majestic peaks, winding streams, and sunsets, as well as menacing clouds. An intrepid traveller, Doré spent time in Switzerland, Spain and the French Pyrénées, but it was in Scotland that he discovered a real personal style, according to Lang. “His landscapes are related to the sublime, but they are more picturesque, more contemplative.”

Master of Imagination opened to rave reviews in Paris this spring. Now, Canadian audiences who may never have heard of Gustave Doré will have an opportunity “to discover the source of what they know already,” as Lang says. “It is time to pay tribute to someone who is part of our visual heritage.”

Gustave Doré: Master of Imagination is on view at the National Gallery from June 12 to September 14, 2014. A full-colour exhibition catalogue is available in French and English.

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