La vie en province histoire d'une invitation à la campagne
La vie en province histoire d'une invitation à la campagne

Gustave Doré was a 19th-century French engraver, painter, sculptor and book illustrator. He is world famous for his imaginative and iconic depictions of many classics of world literature. Doré was blessed with a tremendous graphic talent which enabled him to draw even the most fantastical settings and creatures in a realistic and believable way. His illustrations of the Bible, 'Don Quixote', 'Paradise Lost', 'Baron Munchhausen', Dante's 'Divina Commedia' and Charles Perrault's 'Fairy Tales of Mother Goose', to name a few, are still regarded as the definitive artistic interpretations of these stories. He visualized literary characters like Don Quixote, Baron Munchhausen and Puss in Boots in such a vivid manner that they've become part of human collective memory. Doré's work was not only a huge inspiration to countless graphic artists, but also inspired the visual style of various biblical and fantasy children's books, novels, comics, films and TV series. While Doré is first and foremost known as an illustrator of fantasy he also made several realistic paintings and engravings of European land- and cityscapes. Even lesser known is that he was the first French comics artist in history, not counting Jacques Callot. Early in his career Doré drew various humoristic text comics, of which four were published in comic book format, namely 'Les Travaux d'Hercule' (1847), 'Trois artistes incompris et mécontents' (1851), 'Les Dés-agréments d'un voyage d'agrément' (1851) and 'L'Histoire de la Sainte Russie' (1854). Their dynamic power and visual inventiveness make these comics more than a mere curiosum in Doré's career. Some of his lay-out and scene view points wouldn't be used by other artists for more than half a century! Particularly ''L'Histoire de la Sainte Russie' is seen as a highlight in comics history. Together with Jacques Callot's 'Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre' (1633) and Francis Barlow's 'History of the Hellish Popish Plot' (1682) it can be considered one of the first historical comics, signed by the original author.


Paradise Lost

Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré was born in 1832 in Strasbourg, France, as the son of an engineer. Doré always loved reading and listening to stories. He was only five when he started making his first drawings. At age eight he drew an illustrated story of 28 pages in length inspired by J.J. Grandville's 'Scènes de la Vie Privée et Publique des Animaux' (1830). At age nine the boy made a first attempt to create illustrations for Dante Alighieri's classic medieval poem 'La Divina Commedia'. In 1844-1846 he wrote several stories which he illustrated himself, namely 'Histoire of Calypso' and 'Les Aventures de Mistenflûte et de Mirliflor'. Doré showed such a remarkable gift that he entered the Lycée of Bourg-en-Bresse where he studied art. Later he also studied at the Lycée Charlemagne. His major graphic influences were J.J. Grandville, Cham and Rodolphe Töpffer. Through his father the fifteen year old Doré got in touch with Charles Philipon, publisher of the satirical magazine Le Journal Pour Rire. In 1847 the youngster published his first caricatures for this magazine under the title 'Grotesques', soon establishing himself as their home cartoonist. His contract stipulated that Philipon had to publish at least one of Doré's drawings a week. This clause was a stroke of luck, because Doré's father passed away soon after, making him the only breadwinner of the family.

Les Travaux d'Hercule
Les Travaux d'Hercule

During this period Doré created several illustrated sequential narratives, including 'Les Travaux d'Hercule' (1847). This was a parody of François Fénelon's children's novel 'Les Aventures de Télémaque', a book which had been spoofed before five years earlier by Cham as 'Télémaque, fils d'Ulysse' (1842). Doré's work is a prototypical text comic, where the story can be read beneath the panels. Even the way it was published reminds today's audiences of a modern day comic book. The publishing company Aubert & Cie made 'Les Travaux d'Hercule' available as a little book in oblong format. Given that Doré was only 15 years old when he created this work it's an amazingly creative and captivating comic strip. While there have been artists since who've created comics at an even younger age few can match Doré's professionalism. In hindsight it's not all that surprising that, of all people, Gustave Doré would become the first significant French comics artist. He was such a virtuosic illustrator that he invented his own rules as he went along. Doré didn't hesitate whether it was appropriate to use a realistic style or just caricature? He just combined the two if it supported the story! He often multiplied his images to suggest a sequential scene and sometimes didn't even draw panels. This playfulness typifies Doré's comics. His enthusiasm was such that he just drew as he pleased, with little regard for page lay-out. Doré's publishers learned early that his artwork dictated the lay-out, rather than the other way around...

Les Des-agréments d'un Voyage d'Agrément
Les Des-agréments d'un Voyage d'Agrément

In 1851 Aubert & Cie also published two other comic books by Doré, namely 'Trois Artists Incompris, Méconnus et Mécontents, leur voyage en province et d'ailleurs, leur faim dévorante et leur deplorable fin'' (1851) and 'Les Des-agréments d'un Voyage d'Agrément' (1851), both simple slapstick comics which make no use of panels. 'Trois Artistes' centers around the bumbling adventures of three men: dramatist Sombremine, painter Badigeon and violinist Tartarini. After a long series of mishaps the trio commits suicide by being devoured. In a way the trio can be considered a forerunner of Louis Forton's classic comic strip 'Les Pieds Nickelés' (1907), nearly half a century later. 'Les Des-agréments' is a humoristic tale about two men, César and Vespasie Plumet, who decide to travel through the Alps but soon discover that their little trip is not as relaxing as they assumed it would be. Doré even portrayed himself halfway the story, when the characters notice "the famous Gustave Doré" painting in the mountains. This might very well be the first instance in history of a comics artist making a creator cameo.

Histoire pittoresque dramatique et caricaturale de la Sainte Russie, d'après les chroniqueurs et historiens Nestor Nikan Sylvestre Karamsin Ségur etc
Histoire pittoresque dramatique et caricaturale de la Sainte Russie, d'après les chroniqueurs et historiens Nestor Nikan Sylvestre Karamsin Ségur etc

In 1853 Doré drew his third and final comic strip story, 'Histoire pittoresque dramatique et caricaturale de la Sainte Russie, d'après les chroniqueurs et historiens Nestor Nikan Sylvestre Karamsin Ségur etc' (1853), consequently also his final comic strip to be published in book form. Instead of Aubert it was brought out by J. Bry Sr., a Parisian librarian. The comic is an illustrated history of Russia, drawn in more than 500 individual vignettes (roughly 104 pages), which was the longest comic strip at that time. Doré tells centuries of historic events in highly detailed and vivid drawings. He plays with the lay-out and the combinations of text and drawings. In a sense this is not only the first graphic novel in history, but also the first history comic (not counting Jacques Callot's 18-page 'Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre' (1633) and Francis Barlow's one page 'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' (1682)). 'Histoire de la Sainte Russie' appeared at the height of the then ongoing Crimean War between France, the United Kingdom and Russia. Therefore the work has quite an anti-Russian tone. Still it's still enjoyable for modern day readers as Doré lightens up his long narrative with puns, literal visualisations of figure-of-speech expressions and ironic narration. 'Histoire de la Sainte Russie' remains one of the milestones in the history of comics. At the time it was a genuine bestseller, though it also fell victim of censorship. In 1856 emperor Napoléon III had all available copies confiscated because he feared the book might influence the Parisian Congress during its peace negotiations with Russia.

While these three works were Doré's only genuine comic books he also drew several one-shot comic strips for Le Journal Pour Rire which were occasionally reprinted in other magazines, but never collected in book form. Between 17 February and 24 March 1849 a humoristic text comic by Doré named 'Histoire d'une Invitation à la Campagne' (1849) appeared in Le Journal Pour Rire. Three pages long, the narrative follows Mr. Berniquet as he invites his friend Mr. Godinot to his mansion, an experience both regret by the end of the story. On 2 February 1850 Doré and Edmond Dorin co-created the comic strip 'Désagréments des animaux d'agrément' in which a monkey, a dog and a parakeet attack a man and his son. This leads to a genuine war between the animals and our two human protagonists. In 1849 Doré illustrated musical scores by his brother Ernest and three years later he illustrated the 'Folies Gauloises' (1852).


L'Homme aux Cent Mille Écus (Le Journal Pour Rire, 12 January 1850)

Between January and June 1850 Doré illustrated a text by E. Bourget named 'L'Homme aux Cent Mille Écus'. This humoristic text comic centers around a young man named Narcisse Pomponet who inherits a large sum of money. The next six months, readers could follow the farcical adventures of this young millionaire in episodes. The comic is interesting because we can already see Doré experiment with different perspectives and point of views. His comic looks amazingly modern considering comics were still in their infancy at the time. Yet he already uses close-ups, bird's eye views and wide panoramic shots to make the story more visually interesting. 'L'Homme aux Cent Mille Écus' was mostly inspired by the British comic strip 'Mr. Crindle's Rapid Career Upon Town' (1847), written by Albert Smith and drawn by H.G. Hine. Doré even copied a few images for his own story, though he and Bourget at least mentioned their inspirational source in the title pages. In 1847 'L'Homme aux Cent Mille Écus' was partly republished in the English magazine The Man in the Moon.

Une Ascenssion du Mont Blanc, by Gustave Dore
Une Ascension au Mont Blanc (1860)

Between 2 May, 9 May and 6 June 1851 Doré published the comic 'Voyage en Allemagne' in Le Journal Pour Rire, which was an illustrated travel report to Germany. On 12 June 1852 'Une Ascension au Mont Blanc' (1852) appeared in Le Journal Pour Rire, which was a new adventure starring Narcisse Pomponet. Back then the idea of creating a sequel to a picture story with the same recurring character was still a relatively new concept. Only Thomas Rowlandson's 'Doctor Syntax' (1812-1821) had done this before. But Doré still broke new ground by breaking the fourth wall. As the broke Pomponet travels to the Alps to commit suicide by jumping off one of the mountains he enters a chalet. On the table he finds a copy of Le Journal Pour Rire, featuring his own previous story in it! Luckily for our protagonist ‘L’Ascension au Mont Blanc’ has a much happier ending where he finds the woman of his dreams.

De l'Influence de la Propagation du Violoncelle, à l'Exemple de M. Offenbach

Between 20 July and 16 August 1852 Doré's 'Les Eaux de Baden' was another text comic published in Le Journal pour Rire. On 18 September 1852, Doré's 'Les Vacances du Collégien' (1852) was published in which a holiday of an university student was ridiculed. One month later, on 9 October, 'Une Heureuse Vocation' (1852) saw print. The work goes down in history as the first autobiographical comic strip. Around the same period Doré also drew the text comics 'Recette Pour Se Marier Dédiée Aux Célibataires', 'Impressions de Voyages. À Propos du Départ pour les Eaux de Bade, Wiesbade, et Autres, à l'Usage des Bade-eaux', 'De l'Influence de la Propagation du Violoncelle, à l'Exemple de M. Offenbach' (a pantomime comic satirizing he music of composer Jacques Offenbach) and 'Manières d'élever les Ours et de s'en Faire Dix Mille Livres de Rente'.

1854 proved to be a turning point in Doré's career. After illustrating François Rabelais' 16th century novels 'Gargantua and Pantagruel', which were published as 'Oeuvres de Rabelais', he achieved a commercial breakthrough. Audiences loved his highly detailed and fantastical art work, which fit the picaresque novels perfectly. Therefore he drew a second version in 1873. The only downside of this success was that Doré quit making comics altogether. In 1856 he also left Le Journal Pour Rire and refrained from drawing political cartoons too. Last but not least Doré would never create any story of his own again. From that point on he seemed perfectly satisfied with illustrating other people's imagination. Though this did not mean a loss of creativity. By visualizing what was written down Doré still had plenty of opportunity to come up with his own ideas. Still, it was quite a sudden departure. Doré was only 22 years old at the time, an age at which most comics artists still have to publish an actual work! One can only wonder what else he would've achieved if he had simply continued making comics for the rest of his career?

From: Dante's La Divina Commedia
From: Dante's La Divina Commedia

Yet, in a way, most novels that Doré illustrated still couldn't hide his comics background. His rich imagination lent itself well for stories of a fantastical nature. His graphic power is such that one can easily skip the text and just stare at his pictures, without missing much. In the next decades he livened up numerous classic novels, poems and short stories. In 1855 he illustrated 'Les Cent Contes Drolatiques' (1855) by Honoré de Balzac. A year later he made an engraving depicting The Wandering Jew with 'La Légende du Juif Errant' (1856) which was a precursor of the biblical illustrations he would make a decade later. In 1861 Doré created his first instantly classic illustration work for Dante Alighieri's classic poem 'La Divina Commedia'. The first volume depicted Hell. His interpretations of Purgatory and Paradise would only follow in 1868. Yet Hell had far more interesting possibilities for visualisation. Several of his drawings have become the second-most iconic interpretations of Hell next to the works of Hieronymus Bosch. Images like Satan chained to the ground, sinners grown into trees and the overall wasteland look of the Underworld have inspired countless artists. 'La Divina Commedia' was such a bestseller that it led to more commissions to illustrate classics of world literature.

Le Petit Poucet
Le Petit Poucet

In 1862 Doré visualized Rudolf Raspe's stories about the notorious Baron Munchhausen. The far-fetched stories of the megalomaniacal baron were perfect material for him. He not only gave him his standard look - a tall man with a goatee - but visualized the always logic-defying tales. Raspe wrote about half-chopped off horses, a fur coat moving around on its own and giants on the Moon. Readers who previously had trouble imagining these scenes in front of them could now simply look at Doré's drawings. His experience in comics helped him illustrate even the most absurd descriptions. The same year Doré worked on Charles Perrault's 'Fairy Tales of Mother Goose' (1862), which encompasses 'Hop O'-My-Thumb', 'Sleeping Beauty', 'Cinderella', 'Puss In Boots', 'Little Red Riding Hood' and 'Bluebeard' among several lesser known stories. His engravings influenced countless other fairy tale illustrators. The general public image of ancient characters like the Big Bad Wolf, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard was mostly shaped by this book. His fantastical castles and frightening dark woods have been cemented in many readers' memories. Doré drew most of his inspiration from the forests in the Vosges he knew from his youth. The impact of this book has been such that many people still associate Doré with fairy tales, even though he only illustrated one such book in his entire life! But the work is perhaps the most perfect example of what Doré did best. He preferred tales about giants, exotic animals, monsters, palaces, castles, knights, thick and dark forests, moody weather and colourful heroes and villains. Thanks to his tremendous talent he was able to make the most unbelievable things appear believable. Each fantasy creature is drawn with an eye for detail and realism, while the backgrounds evoke a rich, dreamy atmosphere.

Don Quixote by Gustave Dore
Don Quixote

In 1863 Doré's pen took on the most classic novel of all time: Miguel de Cervantes' 'Don Quixote'. He visualized the tall and lanky windmill chaser and his short pot-bellied servant Sancho Panza in the way they are still portrayed today. The backgrounds evoke sunny Spain in its most romantic but effective way. And the big-eyed gnarled monster, peering over the wall, has also frightened many readers. In 1866 Doré illustrated Théophile Gautier's 'Capitaine Fracasse', John Milton's poem 'Paradise Lost' and the biggest universal best-seller of all time: the Bible. Particularly the latter book became a best-seller in itself. Even though numerous artists had illustrated biblical scenes centuries before Doré was even born he still managed to put his own stamp on them. Moses descending from the mountain, Jacob wrestling the angel, Samson destroying the temple, David decapitating Goliath, the first appearance of Leviathan... they've all become iconic. Already in Doré's lifetime many biblical illustrators copied his imagery, while numerous school teachers have used these very pictures to make their bible lessons more visually interesting.


David and Goliath

Gustave Doré was a beloved artist. He was honoured as a Chevalier (1854) and an Officer (1879) in the Légion d'Honneur, being the first comics artist to receive this honour, even though he was much better known as an illustrator by that point. In 1861 he was invited to French emperor Napoléon III's palace and in 1875 he met Queen Victoria at Buckingham. His work was published all across the globe. In England they were prepublished in the Illustrated London News. In 1867 he was subject of a huge retrospective exhibition in London. Only a year later the British capital established a gallery named after him in Bond Street, which is still there today. Doré now met many celebrity writers (Alexandre Dumas), composers (Gioacchino Rossini, Franz Liszt) and actors (Adelina Patti). He even had an affair with the celebrated singer and actress Sarah Bernhardt, though he never married.

The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen
The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen

While Doré is most famous and celebrated as an illustrator of Romantic tales he was not simply someone who was born in the wrong century. He preferred drawing stories with fantastical elements, but he also had an eye for his own era. His 'Voyage aus Pyrénées' (1855) was a graphical report of his voyage to the French-Spanish mountainous area Les Pyréneés. The artist also travelled to Switzerland (1853 and 1875), Spain (1855 and 1862), Germany (1862), England (1868) and Scotland (1873-1874). A more dramatic vision of mountaineering was his iconic depiction of the real-life tragic accident of five mountaineers who fell to their doom while trying to climb the Matterhorn in 1865. Doré's most well known realistic engravings were 'Paris tel qu'il est' (1854) and 'London: A Pilgrimage' (1872), which depicted city life respectively Paris and London. The latter project was an idea from journalist Blanchard Jerrold and was inspired by the illustrated book 'The Microcosm of London' (1808-1810) by Rudolph Ackermann, William Pyne and Thomas Rowlandson. At the time Doré's more realistic engravings of cities and landscapes sold well, but met with mixed reviews. Many were so used to his Romantic drawings that they disliked him just picturing reality. Others felt that Doré's illustrations could have left out the poorer and uglier portions of certain city areas, such as the slums. Today's audiences have a different opinion. Doré's realistic drawings offer an interesting and valuable time capsule of mid-19th century city life in London and Paris at the height of the Industrial Revolution. By not sugarcoating the conditions in which the working class citizens had to live the artist offered an honest and trustworthy view of both locations. And for an artist so famous for using his own imagination this is all the more remarkable. Doré also made another work on commission of London investors, namely the gigantic painting 'Christ Leaving The Praetorium' (1872). Even at the age of 49 he still tried out new ways of creative expression, like sculpture and water colour painting.

London: A Pilgrimage

In 1867 Doré livened up the words to Jean de la Fontaine's 'Fables' and Arthur Lord Tennyson's poetry collection 'The Idylls Of The King' (1867-1868). His drawing of a wolf disguised as a shepherd for the first-mentioned book would later be copied by Honoré Daumier for his 1867 caricature of Prussian king Wilhelm (the later Wilhelm I). In 1870 Prussia and Germany engaged in the Franco-Prussian War. Doré enlisted in the National Guard but also showed his patriotic dedication in other fields, such as the engravings 'La Marseillaise', 'Le Chant du Départ', 'Le Rhin Allemand', 'L' Aigle Noir' and 'L'Enigme'. A year later Paris got sweeped up in the revolution of the Communards which motivated him and his mother to flee to Versailles. When the revolution died out again mother and son returned to the French capital. In 1879 Doré provided art work for Ludovico Ariosto's 'Orlando Furioso'. His swan song was Edgar Allan Poe's poetry collection 'The Raven' (1883). As it was Doré's lifelong ambition to illustrate every possible work of world literature he set his eye next on Shakespeare's plays. Unfortunately, apart from some preliminary sketches, he was never able to start his ambitious project. He still lived with his mother when she passed away in 1881. Doré only survived her for two years until he died in early 1883.

Doré was a productive artist. He left behind an oeuvre of more than 50.000 drawings. Yet he didn't do everything on his own. When he made wood engravings he received help from professional engravers like Jean Best, Ernest Boetzel, Louis-Henri Brevière, Jean Delduc, Émile Deschamps, Louis Dumont, Fagnon, Jean Gauchard, Pierre Gusman, César-August Hébert, Octave Jahyer, Paul Jonnard, Jacques-Adrien Lavieille, Charles Maurand, Adolphe François Pannemaker, Antoine-Alphée Piaud, François Pierdon, Héliodore Pisan, Paul Riault, Elisa Rouget and Noël Eugène Sotain, who often co-signed their names underneath the works. His statue of 'Le Danse' (1878) is still located at the Opera House of Monaco, while his monument to Alexandre Dumas can still be seen at the Place Malesherbes in Paris.

comic art by Gustave Doré

Gustave Doré was in many ways an unique artist. Already popular in his own lifetime he had even more posthumous influence. In fact, one might even say he had more cultural impact than any other 19th century artist. His work was a tremendous inspiration for many graphic artists, including Félicien Rops, Vincent van Gogh, Anton Pieck, Walt Disney, Ray Harryhausen, Terry Gilliam, Peter Van Straaten, Philippe Druillet, François Boucq, François Schuiten and Robert Crumb. Disney borrowed much of the visual style of his fairy tale adaptations from Doré, particularly the Silly Symphonies and films like 'Snow White' (1937), 'Cinderella' (1950) and 'Sleeping Beauty' (1959). The haunted forest in 'Snow White' and Sleeping Beauty's palace are just two specific examples. But Doré's influence can also be felt in live-action films. As early as the 1900s Georges Méliès mimicked the artist in his film sets and special effects. Countless biblical epics, like those by Cecil B. DeMille, have ripped off scenes from Doré's Bible and Divina Commedia. Special effects maker Willis O'Brien designed Skull Island in 'King Kong' (1933), inspired by Doré's atmospheric depictions of dark woods full of grotesque monsters. Naturally his successor Ray Harryhausen also evoked the dreamy atmosphere of Doré's fantasies in pictures like 'The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad' (1956), 'Jason and the Argonauts' (1963) and 'Clash of the Titans' (1981). Fairy tale films like Jean Cocteau's 'La Belle et la Bête' (1946), Neil Jordan's 'The Company of Wolves' (1984) and Tim Burton's 'Sleepy Hollow' (1999) also took much of their mood from Doré's Perrault illustrations. David Lean's 'Oliver Twist' (1948) partially looked at 'London: A Pilgrimage' for visual inspiration. Terry Gilliam has directed several live-action films directly inspired by works Doré originally illustrated, such as 'The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen' (1989) and 'Don Quixote' (2018). Others, like 'Time Bandits' (1981) and 'The Brothers Grimm' (2003) took visual cues from Doré's fairy tale adaptations. Last but not least, a bearded cannibal in 'Orlando Furioso' inspired George Lucas to the creation of Chewbacca in 'Star Wars' (1977).

For those interested in Doré's work as a comics artist David Kunzle's 'Twelve Comic Strips' (2015) is a must-read.

comic art by Gustave Doré
Picture of Doré by Felix Nadar

Comic strips by Gustave Doré on topfferiana.fr

Series and books by Gustave Doré in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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