Today is the birthday of Gustave Doré, who was born in 1832 in Strasbourg, which was then a part of France. Gustave took to drawing at a very young age His earliest dated drawings were made when he was just five and he could make highly elaborate and detailed drawings from memory. He would later turn out to be great at painting and sculpture too. Also he was a pretty good mountain climber, singer, violin player and acrobat. But, just so I don’t make him too annoying, I’ll stick with his illustrations today.
When Doré was fifteen, he visited Paris with his family and he absolutely loved it. During their visit they happened to pass a publishing company, called La Maison Aubert, with some comic drawings displayed in their windows. Gustave hatched a plan. The next day he feigned illness. His family had to go out without him. As soon as they had gone, he made a few sketches, headed straight back to Aubert and into the office of its head publisher, Charles Philipon. He put his drawings on the desk and told Philipon: “This is how that set of illustrations should be done.” Philipon was amused by the boy’s approach, but delighted by the drawings. He called several other people in to look at them. No one could believe they had been done by young Gustave. They asked him to draw more. He quickly dashed off a few sketches. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Philipon would not let the boy leave the office, but tracked down his father and talked him into signing a lucrative contract for his son.
Gustave published his first book at age fifteen, his own version of the ‘Trials of Hercules’. Then he began illustrating a magazine published by Aubert called ‘Le Petit Journal Pour Rire’, the little magazine for laughs, which, incidentally, was edited by Félix Nadar who took the above photograph of him. By the time Gustave was seventeen, he was the highest paid comic illustrator in France. He made over 2,000 caricatures whilst he was still in his teens. By the 1850s he wanted to be taken more seriously and moved on to illustration. He produced engravings for works by Rabelais, Balzac and many more for a publisher called Louis Hachette. But still he was searching for something more satisfying. His books were selling well, but none of them sold for more that fifteen Francs. But over the course of five years, he had been working on a much grander project. He was making a series of large illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. It was a massive undertaking and couldn’t be sold for less than a hundred Francs. Hatchette thought it was a stupid idea, no one would pay that much for a book. But Gustave really wanted to do it. He offered to pay for the printing himself and eventually Hatchette agreed. A thousand copies were printed, but the publisher was so sure they wouldn’t sell that he only bound a hundred of them. A couple of weeks later Gustave received a telegram from Hatchette: “Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!”. The book would eventually run to 200 editions.
Gustave’s illustrations for the Inferno really proved his worth as a serious illustrator. He went on to produce a set of drawings for Perrault’s ‘Fairy Tales’ and ‘The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen’. He also did a set of now definitive illustrations for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for which he travelled to Spain to really get a feel for the places that the story was set. Almost all subsequent images of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, both in books and on film, have been influenced by his work. It was also among his first works to be published in Britain. We took to him immediately here, and in the UK he received a level of recognition in his lifetime that he never really achieved in France. Gustave Doré did not really suit the French art world, he had never trained as an artist and didn’t fit into any particular genre. In his teens he had published a book called ‘Three Artists, Misunderstood Malcontents’ poking fun at serious artists and art critics. It hadn’t really gone down very well, particularly as he was, at the time, more highly paid than the people he was lampooning. Even though he later produced some really beautiful paintings, they still thought of him as little more than an illustrator.
In London, however, a gallery was opened specifically to show the works of Gustave Doré in 1867. Initially, it was a five month long exhibition. It ran for twenty-three years. He continued to produce illustrations right through the 1860s, including a set for the Bible which was hugely popular. Also he produced work for the other two parts of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’. He began to get commissions to illustrate works by British authors, among them Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ and Coleridge’s ‘ Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ which is beautiful. His last work was his only American commission, a set of prints for Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ which he was working on at the time of his death in 1883.
His images have wonderfully dramatic quality and have been a massive resource for film makers from the very beginning. Almost every film made about the Bible has referred to his illustrations. We know that Cecil B DeMille had a copy of his Bible prints when he was a child and that it was one of his favourites. Before that, Georges Méliès drew inspiration from his work. So did Jean Cocteau, Ray Harrihausen, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and many others. I have sought out a few images that remind me of film sets and characters and, with over 100,000 drawings to choose from, there must be hundreds more. Can you guess what these are?