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Bible Engravings, 1866

His first book was published at the age of 15. A year later, he was the highest paid illustrator in France. During his lifetime, he was literally the most famous artist in the world.

One of the most prolific artists of the 19th century is the French-born (Paul) Gustave Doré. Born in Strasbourg on January 6, 1832, he died in Paris, January 23, 1883.

A visit to Paris when Doré was only 15 years old led to his hiring by publisher Charles Philipon who was so amazed upon viewing the young boy’s talent it’s said that he almost cried. In 1848, Philipon launched a new humour weekly, Journal pour Rire (The Journal For Laughing), and 16-year-old Doré was the featured artist, producing lithographic caricatures. He would continue to build his illustrious career with illustrations for such famous literary works as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and his only U.S. commission — Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. He even created 238 engravings for the best-selling book of all time, The Bible.

Although turning his hand to all forms of art — painting, sculpture and printmaking — Doré’s glorious wood-engravings are what he is best known for. Sometimes dark and reflective, but always stunningly executed, Doré’s wood-engraved book illustrations evoke a strong sense of atmosphere and mood. His work is immediately recognizable to the eye of both critics and laymen alike.

His ability to capture not only the tangible aspects of a scene, but also the spirit of the moment is a rare and very under-appreciated skill in the art world.

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Westminster Stairs — Steamers Leaving ~London

A collaboration with his friend, journalist Blanchard Jerrold, “London: A Pilgrimage”, published in 1872, is generally regarded as Doré’s greatest achievement. And it’s certainly not difficult to see why.

A Ball at the Mansion House ~London

Doré’s illustrations record and reflect the London that he and Jerrold explored in 1869 – the rich, the poor, the night life, the daytime grind, the opulent glamour and the filthy slums – in short, every aspect of the lives of Londoners. It’s an intimate look at all the great city had to offer.

Inside the Docks ~London

Bishopsgate Street ~London

Westminster Abbey — The Choir ~London

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Dante’s Divine Comedy is comprised of three books: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. The first of Doré’s illustrations (for Inferno) were published in 1861. His illustrated Purgatory and Paradise were published later, in 1868, and were released as a single volume.

“This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided, kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating. Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it. That day no farther did we read therein.” ~Inferno

“Then stretched he both his hands unto the boat; whereat my wary Master thrust him back, saying, “Away there with the other dogs!”” ~Inferno

“He reached the gate, and with a little rod he opened it, for there was no resistance.” ~Inferno

“And shadows, that appeared things doubly dead, from out the sepulchres of their eyes betrayed wonder at me, aware that I was living.” ~Purgatory

“Youthful and beautiful in dreams methought I saw a lady walking in a meadow, gathering flowers and singing.” ~Purgatory

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It is said that Doré’s true passion was painting and that he was determined to be known as a great painter. Unfortunately, in his home country of France (and by many of his peers), he would never be accepted as such.

Gustave Doré, “Christ Leaving The Praetorium”

Doré believed that “art which said nothing, which conveyed no idea, albeit perfect in form and colour, missed the highest quality and raison d’etre (reason for being or the purpose that justifies a thing’s existence) of art.”

Many of Doré’s contemporaries disagreed with his assessment of art. They pointed to his lack of formal training and criticized Doré’s skill as an artist. According to Blanchard Jerrold, who wrote of discussions between Doré and men such as French poet and art critic Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier, “The painters said he could not paint.”

Gustave Doré, “The Triumph of Christianity Over Paganism”

But the obvious talent on display in Doré’s paintings suggest that his critics may have been motivated by professional jealousy. His talent was indeed, as many of Dore’s friends expressed, “on the level with the masterpieces of the Italian masters of the sixteenth century.” Whether viewing his harmonious paintings or strikingly bold engravings, one fact is abundantly clear – Gustave Doré, to this day, remains one of the greatest artists the world has ever known.