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Illustrator Gustave Dore

An artist of the people'

Created date

June 29th, 2015
Dante's Inferno
Dante's Inferno

When it comes to book illustrators, there aren’t many artists who can rival the work of Gustave Doré. Known for his dark, gothic engravings of such classics as Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, his illustrations are as sought after by modern readers and book collectors as they were in his own day.

Born in Strasbourg in 1832, Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré was a precocious youngster. Even in his earliest years, he showed signs of tremendous artistic talent. 

At age five, he was already creating his own stories, complete with hand-drawn illustrations. And by the time he was 12, he had graduated to the more advanced art of stone lithography. 

So obvious was his flair and capacity for illustration that upon meeting the boy in a chance encounter, the great French illustrator J.J. Grandville predicted that Doré would one day be a huge success. But it’s unlikely that Grandville could have imagined just how soon his prophecy would come true.

In 1847, Doré officially arrived on the Parisian art scene in a most unusual way.

Seizing opportunity

Vacationing there with his parents, the 15-year-old artist passed by a publisher’s office where a handful of engravings were on display in the front window. Instantly, Doré began scheming.

The next morning he told his parents he wasn’t feeling well and that they should go sightseeing without him. As soon as they left, Doré beat a path for the publisher’s office with his artwork in hand.

On his arrival, the teenager barged unannounced into Charles Philipon’s office and laid a series of engravings on his desk. Before Philipon could utter a syllable, Doré pointed to his portfolio and, in reference to the engravings on display in the front window, declared that “This is how that set of illustrations should be done.”

The boy’s energy, not to mention the unmistakable quality of his work, impressed Philipon. The publisher called his staff into his office, where Doré sat down and produced several more illustrations on the spot. 

Philipon didn’t waste a second. He quickly tracked down the teen’s father and convinced him to sign a contract for Gustave’s services.

Doré’s parents returned home to Strasbourg, leaving their son behind in Paris. Within a year, he would be the highest paid illustrator in all of France.

For the remainder of his teenaged years, Doré drew caricatures for Philipon’s satirical magazine Journal pour Rire, making more money per page than some of the leading French illustrators were earning at the peak of their careers. 

And he was just getting started.

By the 1850s, Doré had outgrown Philipon’s journal and was illustrating more sophisticated literary works. It was during this period that he approached French publisher Louis Hachette with an ambitious proposal. 

He wanted to produce a massive illustrated folio edition of Dante’s Inferno. Hachette reluctantly agreed.

The final product was exquisite, as usual. 

Upon its release in 1861, Hachette had kept the print-run at a cautious 100 copies for fear that it wouldn’t sell. His concerns, however, were unfounded.

Never had an illustrator brought to life the dark and horrifying elements of Dante’s epic with such lifelike detail, and to date, upwards of 200 editions have seen publication.

From the Inferno to the Bible

But Doré’s rendition of Dante’s Inferno wasn’t his only masterwork. In the mid 1860s, his illustrated version of the Bible was a tremendous success—so well-known, in fact, that Mark Twain mentioned it in Tom Sawyer.

To be sure, Doré is most famous for his engravings, but he also made various attempts at other art forms like sculpture and painting. Unfortunately, he failed to achieve the high status he’d enjoyed as an illustrator and continued to churn out literary folios, including Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, which he finished just before his death in 1883. He was only 51.

Doré’s life was short, yet he lived it to the fullest. His illustrations were adored by art and literature enthusiasts the world over.

When the Art Institute of Chicago held an exhibition of his work in 1896, attendance sometimes reached an astounding 16,000 visitors each day. Doré’s material was accessible, haunting, and romantic.

He was, in the words of Vincent Van Gough, an “artist of the people.” Still an inspiration to illustrators in the twenty-first century, his legacy only serves to bolster Van Gough’s opinion.

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