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Gustave Doré’s Enduring Passion for Art

Updated: Jun 19

Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré was one of the most prolific illustrators in history. Doré was known as a printmaker, sculptor, comics artist, and more but his illustrations remain well-recognized even to this day. The elaborate, finely detailed Gustave Doré etchings bring life to many well-known stories, among which are Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Dante’s Inferno.

A photograph of Gustave Doré

The Early Childhood of Gustave Doré

Doré was an artist from the moment he could pick up a pencil. In fact, as an infant, he would crawl out of his crib and cry out, “Mama, je ne sais ce que j'ai! Je veux crayonner!” (Mama, I don’t know what I have. I want a pencil.) Then he would crawl back into bed with a pencil clutched tightly in his baby hand.

During his fifth year, Doré made drawings of battles that awed his classmates and teachers alike. The sense of movement and understanding of figures and composition was beyond his years. Doré’s father was an engineer and hoped his son would go down the same route as himself, or perhaps be an artillery officer.  But Doré remained steadfast in his artistic journey. His father even bought him a violin, in hopes Doré would be swayed away from art, but instead, Doré turned out to be a genius at the stringed instrument as well, repeating bits of what the military bands played in the public gardens.

When Gustave Doré Made it Snow in June

Doré was quite an expert at the art of caricature as well. While this skill would be one that he would not revisit as an adult, as a child he made many caricatures. One such case was while he was in school: a professor who would often boast about his fish-catching prowess was seen by Doré buying a fish off a poor laborer. 

Doré took this opportunity and made a caricature of the event, circulating this amongst other students, until the teacher caught sight of it. As punishment, the professor sent Doré to the attic, a scant, cramped room piled with reams of white paper. Doré immediately set to work and started tearing apart this paper into fine shreds. What Doré did next was throw these pieces out the window, when after the wind picked them up, they were scattered amongst the rooftops, looking quite like snow. 

A group of people gathered around the school and needed to be placated by the headmaster, and when Doré was approached by the initial teacher he’d wronged, and asked why he did such a deed, he answered, “You said I should never be good till it snowed in June. I merely wished to prove to you, this being the month of June, that I was willing to be good, by causing a fall of snow.”

The Rise of Gustave Doré’s Career

Doré’s artistic career began when Doré was in Paris with his family. His father was still set on Doré becoming an engineer, hoping to enroll him in the Polytechnic school. The family had gone out for a walk when they passed by the shop window of Aubert and Philippon, on the Place de la Bourse. They had some comic illustrations up on the windows and Doré noted these as closely as he could while with family. 

Gustave Doré caricature of Dante's Inferno

After reaching home he claimed he was sick so that his family should leave without him. The moment that the house was empty Doré left with not a minute to lose to the shop he’d seen earlier. He approached the storekeeper and told him that the illustrations in the window were not good and that “this is what a good illustration looks like,” offering his own drawings to the man. 

The shopkeeper was amazed by his skill but couldn’t believe a fifteen-year-old had drawn these. He demanded that Doré draw something right then and there and the boy complied, amazing the shopkeeper and getting him to call all his associates to see Doré’s skill. Ultimately, Doré was hired there, and from then on began his work steadfastly pursuing art.

The Mystery and Vitality in Gustave Doré’s Art

Doré’s work spanned many different topics, from illustrating Don Quixote with the most iconic and well-revered version of the characters in the story to illustrating the Bible. He signed a contract that involved him living in London for three months a year and completed 180 wood carvings for the book, London: A Pilgrimage. Though the book was well received, there was some criticism about the ways that it chose to depict poverty. These did impress Vincent Van Gogh though, who painted a version of Prisoner’s Round in the year of his death.

Doré remains a centerpiece in art today, his legacy still alive and well through the centuries. The atmospheric Gustave Doré woodcuttings still amaze viewers and critics alike. About Doré ‘s artwork Théophile Gautier might have said it best when he said, "Nobody better than this artist can give a mysterious and deep vitality to chimeras, dreams, nightmares, intangible shapes bathed in light and shade, weirdly caricatured silhouettes and all the monsters of fantasy.”

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