Gustave Doré was a natural born artist. From boyhood he demonstrated talent far beyond his years. While best known for his illustrations of works by Rabelias, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, and Poe, not to mention his Bible gallery, his artistic exploits also include remarkable landscape and figure paintings, sculptures, and various forms of printmaking. Born in Strasbourg in 1832, by the age of fifteen he was already employed as an artist producing cartoons and comics for Le journal pour rire in Paris. Doré enjoyed a prolific career until his untimely death after a brief illness at the age of 51 in 1883.
Born on January 6, 1832, in Strasbouge, France to Pierre Louis Christophe and Marie Alexandrine Pluchart.
Reenactment of the Gutenburg fête
The Gutenburg fête of 1840 made a big impact on young Gustave. Reenacting this event was perhaps his earliest experience as a budding artist.
Arrival in Paris, Work for Le Journal
At the young age of 15 Gustave was gainfully employed as a staff illustrator and cartoonist. He quickly became the highest paid artist on staff, and gained significant fame for his prolific work.
Death of Father, Pierre Louis Christophe
Oeuvres de Rabelais
Among Gustaves’s earliest works were 104 drawings for the Works of Rabelais. This edition brought Doré significant notoriety and accelerated his career.
Awarded the Legion of Honour
Doré’s work illustrating Dante’s inferno, at his own expense, earned him the French Legion of Honor award.
Doré’s Bible was so popular it became known by virtually everyone, as evidenced by its causal reference in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer…
“When they came to recite their lessons, not one of them knew his verses perfectly, but had to be prompted all along. However, they worried through, and each got his reward–in small blue tickets… for ten yellow tickets the superintendent gave a very plainly bound Bible (worth forty cents in those easy times) to the pupil. How many of my readers would have the industry and application to memorize two thousand verses, even for a Doré Bible?
In a four year collaboration with British journalist Blanchard Jerrold, Doré produced over 180 engraving depicting the darker side of Victorian London.
On January 6, 1883 Gustave died at the age of 51 after a brief illness. He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.
Remembered for the Engravings He Sometimes Disdained
Did Doré’s Reputation as a Commercial Artist Undermine His Recognition as a Fine Artist?
At age fifteen Doré entered the world of commercial art, drawing cartoons and illustrations for Le journal pour rire. His vivid imagination and profound skill as a draftsman led to a prolific career as an illustrator. But the artistic tensions between commercial art and fine art were as real in the 19th century as they are today. Though he longed for broader appreciation as a fine artist for his lush romantic landscapes, figure painting, and sculptures, his fame as an illustrator seemed to always undermine his reputation as a fine artist.
The contrast between his profound fame as an illustrator, and the popularity of his books, his reception at the Salon was cool at best. Many of his submissions were outright rejects, and those few that were displayed met with relative disinterest. Some openly criticized his painting and sculptures, imputing to them a sense of literalism which was clearly out of fashion in the age of impressionism.
But could there also have been resentment to his work because of his success as a commercial artist and illustrator? Did his financial success, and popularity undermine his cred as a Bohemian struggling artist, and thus disqualify him in the world of fine art? Such tensions existed then, and are still with us today.
A Breadth of Work Both Fine and Commercial
The Craft of Wood Engraving
Wood engraving is a form of relief printing, where ink is applied to the surface of a block and directly imprinted on paper. Woodblock printing or linoleum block printing are similar relief forms of printmaking. Wood engraving however, is a much more precise form of relief printing, and therefore could be used to make highly detailed reproductions of paintings and drawings.
There are two features of wood engraving distinct from other forms of relief printing, that make it capable of the fine details needed to reproduce images. First, wood engraving is executed on extremely hard woods (classically boxwood, but today, with boxwood being so rare, maple is used to produce engraving blocks)
Secondly, wood engraving blocks are made by gluing together several pieces of wood orienting each piece so that the end grain of the wood becomes the engraving surface rather than cutting along the plank. As a result cuts can be made in any direction without the risk of breaking off a piece of wood when cutting against the grain. The hardness of the wood, and the ability to cut fine details, made wood engraving the perfect medium for pre-photographic, commercial scale print production.
Other Forms of Printmaking
Wood engraving was used in mass production printing, but there are other forms of printmaking which are much slower to produce, but lend themselves to more robust forms of artistic expression.
Intaglio printmaking is done using various kinds of metal plates. Lines are cut into the metal, or the surface is etched using chemical processes. Ink is then applied to the entire surface of the metal plate, and then whipped away, the remaining ink is trapped in the groves and textures. The inked plate is then placed on a press, a damped sheet of paper is positioned on top, and then a blanket is placed over both and is pressed under a metal cylinder so that the paper is forced into the groves of the plate where it picks up the ink.
Intaglio printmaking is a much more “painterly” form of printmaking than relief printing. Lines can be built up, textures multiplied. A plate can be etched, printed, and then reworked to darken places, and even lightened by burninsing over areas already etched. And since the process picks ink up from the embedded lines, after the surface ink is whipped away, there always remains some ink residue on the surface which is why the entire image area of an intaglio print has some tone to it, darker than the paper it’s printed on. This feature can likewise be manipulated in the printing process. A printmaker might choose to wipe one area of the plate more thoroughly than other parts, marshalling the residue for artistic effect, essentially painting with the ink.
Creating one intaglio print is a time consuming process, since the plate must be re-inked, wiped, set up and run through the press between each print.
Doré, while most known for his engravings also produced intaglio etchings.
Planography, most commonly in the form of lithography, works on the principle that grease and water resist each other. A lithograph is made by drawing with wax crayons on a litho stone. The stone is then treated with acid such that the grease from the crayon penetrates into the surface of the stone. Later, when ink is applied to the stone, the greasy areas will hold the ink, while the rest of the stone, dampened with water will reject the ink. Paper can then be applied to take the print.
Lithographs look a lot like crayon drawing, since the original crayon marks and textures are directly made to the stone and preserve all their nuanced marks. This makes lithographs a more direct form of reproducing drawings, and allow for more rich textures and tones in the prints.
Doré also produced lithographs, which were sold in galleries and collections, to a limited audience.
Reflections on Engravings as Commercial Reproduction
Explore the Imagination of Gustave Doré.
Bibliography and Additional Resources
For More Information on Gustave Doré and His Works check out these resources.
- Kaenel, Philippe, (Ed.). (2014). Gustave Doré (1832-1883) Master of Imagination. Musee d’Orsay / Flammarion / National Gallery of Canada.
- Bann, Stephen. (2001). Parallel Lines. Yale University Press