Artist Exploration: Gustave Doré

by Art

A look at one of history’s greatest artists.

       A polarizing artist to the European world in the 19th century and still debated in the 21st of his significance, Gustave Doré has nevertheless stood the test of time as being one of the greatest artists in history. This article will explore the concepts and themes of the vast corpus he produced over two hundred years ago and the qualities that set him apart from other artists in his time to the present.


Divinity and the prospect of Ascension

File:Gustave Doré by Nadar - Getty Museum.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Gustave Dore, Photographed by  Félix Nadar


      Art, it could be argued, is the number one source for representing any form of divinity, though literature is the natural contender of this claim. As in Dore’s case, any source of divinity portrayed in his many engravings mostly come from the literature sources he chose to work with, many acclaimed for their deep significance to humanity: The Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, to name a few examples. These works have captured the imagination and spirituality of many people throughout the centuries, so for an artist to properly portray the contents thereof within these monumental books and do them justice would take a very bold and unique kind of artist to achieve that indeed.

      Gustave Dore was bold from the outset of his career when at the age of 15, on a family trip to Paris, he showed a compilation of illustrations to the shop of established publishers Auber and Philipon and landed a three year contract to work in Paris. Dore didn’t stop producing art from that point onward and always took on any medium he could get his hands on, to varying degrees of success (his sculptures were not at all popular and only a handful of paintings done by him are remembered, for good or for ill 1).

      His engravings were and still are his most celebrated contributions to the artistic landscape, by virtue of his imagery becoming synonymous with his subjects (the angels he illustrated in his many works are one of his most memorable creations, as well as the drawings he made of the characters from Don Quixote being referenced for future designs in theatre and art in general).

      With a small biography in mind, what made Dore’s portrayal of divinity so special? It isn’t easy to describe in words nor indeed thoughts, but what could be discerned in Dore’s method is an almost ‘snapshot’ effect, whereby his engravings picture a moment in its full splendour rather than staging a piece that clearly does not depict a ‘moment’. Let us use an example of comparison between Dore’s Angels in the Planet Mercury (Dante, Paradiso) and William Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Virgin with Angels (Regina angelorum).




 Gustave Dore, The angels descend from Mercury, Dante. Paradisio


      What is very clear about Dore’s piece is that it is created with both the contextual viewer in mind, Dante and Beatrice, looking up from the clouds they stand on below in Paradise, and the viewer of the piece itself; both are synchronised in experiencing the divine, whereby the characters and viewer are unified in the simple act of looking up towards the angels descending down to them. The feeling one could feel is of a personal nature, as if the art is beckoning to them in some way 2.

      We may also say something about the act of looking up, or in fact any sort of participation the viewer must make in order to view a piece of art. Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one example of where the onlooker must cast their eyes upwards first before marveling at the art above which has double the significance because of the art being located in a holy building. Stained glass windows also share this same effect. We may take this a step further by interjecting John the Apostle’s symbol, the eagle, as a concept to tie together what we’ve laid down: the most philosophical of all the Gospels, John’s eagle call’s the viewers eyes up toward its cries, as philosophy call’s the mind upward to the heights of wisdom and religion calls the soul upward to divine revelation.


File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau The Virgin With Angels.jpg ...

William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Virgin with Angels


      The Virgin with the Angels, however, does not have the same effect as what Dore’s piece calls forth. Though beautiful and highly technical in execution, the painting is static because of the image’s lack of ascension. The Virgin is a piece to more so marvel and perhaps contemplate at rather than be transported to wherever it depicts. To be able to grasp the concept of divinity, one must be lifted up from their existence into a higher state of being by virtue of some physical or meta-physical ascension. What’s more is that the perspective of the piece is straight on which does not call upon any further action of the eye. One climbs a mountain or hill to reach the sky, not walk a straight road. This comparison is not intended to devalue Bouguereau’s piece and prop up Dore, far from it, it is merely to demonstrate the quality of Dore’s depiction of divinity by using another artist’s depiction of divinity as a comparison. It may be said that another engraver for the comparison would have been equitable but what matters most is a well performed explanation of the ascension concept rather than being fair to other contemporaries.

      No other Dore piece could best emphasis this concept of ascension towards divinity than the Empyrean (Dante, Paradiso). Although this engraving is depicted in a straight on perspective as used against Bouguereau’s Virgin previously, the Empyrean calls the eye towards the ever stretching tunnel of angels and its centre; the primo amore 3. To create a representation of Dante’s visio beatifica (beatific vision) and make it beautiful, in fact awe inspiring, is something which Dore achieved in spades by the realisation of Dante’s vision. Circle upon circle, like an extended telescope, the viewer can stare into the concentrated centre of the beatifica. His depiction of this moment from the Paradiso is also one of Dore’s most popular which is not surprising when considered the pull that this engraving has on a viewer.



Empyrean - Wikipedia

Gustave Dore, The Empyrean, Dante. Paradisio


      From this discussion of divinity and its exploration within Dore’s engravings, let us now turn over to another one of his strengths: darkness.


The Darkness and Melancholy


      It’s important for any artist or admirer of art to have a sense of what the divine could look like within art’s many outlets but there is a concept just as paramount as divinity which can move many people in art: sadness, or, to be more precise, death. Divinity and death are married together as the two concepts which allude over all humanity like the sword of Damocles. Thus, to be moved by an image of death is indeed the same in significance as that of divinity, or perhaps to be moved by death is to be moved by divinity and vice versa. We will again pick two pieces for this discussion but only choose from Dore as exploration of other artists will render the subject prone for a separate article.

      The two pieces in mind compliment each other in some way as the first is The Death of Christ from the Bible and the second is Satan descends upon Earth from Paradise Lost. The Death is significant for many technical reasons, such as the dramatic lighting enhancing the emotion but the true quality which shines here and in many other Dore pieces depicting melancholic scenes is a very real silence. It could be imagined that after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (post earthquake destroying the temple) there wasn’t a grand wailing or lament of his death. Realistically there would be no words, no sound, other than the unholstering of his nails and the gentle lowering of his body onto the floor.

“And when Joseph had taken the body,he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,

And laid it in his own new tomb,which he had hewn out in the rock:

and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.4

 Gustave Dore, The Dead Christ, New Testament

      The silence doesn’t arise solely from the subject of Christ and his crucifixion: Dore adds a touch of atmosphere in all of his pieces and it shines here majestically. Atmosphere is key in order to relate mood as music so often reminds us whenever we listen to a moving symphony or a bluesy rift. Therefore, the atmosphere within The Dead Christ can instantly offset our emotions into varying degrees of pity, loss and despair. It’s very important that death be portrayed in this subtle, silent way, as drama does not follow the departed, contrary to what other artists might depict 5.

      When Jesus ventured into the wilderness we are told that Satan tempted him with three temptations (hedonism, egoism, materialism) and so we turn to him in his depiction of descending to earth within an engraving from Paradise Lost.



Gustave Dore, Satan Descends upon Earth, Milton. Paradise Lost


      What has to be noted when looking at Dore’s depiction of Satan is that Milton had made the devil a more fleshed out character in Paradise Lost in hopes of bringing a more nuanced understanding to the plight of humanity depicted in Genesis. He attempted to bring his readers into the mind and plight of the Devil himself, who is depicted as being pitiful and woeful of his desertion of God. Because of this, Dore had taken a romantic approach to Satan’s look, making him look more like a beautiful archangel than an ogre 6. Dore had only done this with Milton, however, as in the biblical engravings he pictured Satan more akin to a fiend 7.

      The moment displayed in Satan’s fall to earth comes from the fourth book of Paradise Lost, when Satan is plotting to enter the Garden of Eden and spoil God’s creations (Adam and Eve).

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.8

 As a side note, this was also mentioned in the book of Isaiah:


How art thou fallen from heaven,
O Lucifer, son of the morning!
how art thou cut down to the ground,
which didst weaken the nations!9


      Through what we have discussed, this piece encompasses all of the observations we have made before, starting with the prospect of calling your eye in a direction; contrary to looking up towards divinity or even down, we are in fact looking straight ahead with an implied motion of descent towards Satan figured in his trajectory, only the more pungent by the light above him reminding us of his initial fall. There is also a great “snapshot” effect captured by how Dore drew the devil in a mid-flight pose and the clouds below receding from his presence, exposing the virgin surface of Earth.

      Within the Paradise Lost engravings, Dore brought forward his skill of rendering melancholy in the many scenes of Satan’s journey from Heaven to Hell, encapsulating Milton’s attempt within his epic narrative to show the scourge of Satan. One of the most pitiful scenes that Dore created lies within “Satan’s flight through Chaos” and showing an expression of abominable wretchedness on the fallen angel. Thus the most pitiful figure in history is given his due within Dore, who was always keen to represent stories of wonder and paramount in their full glory.



Gustave Dore, Satan’s flight through Chaos, Milton, Paradise Lost


      In reference to his undertaking of the bible engravings, Gustave Dore’s biographer, Joanna Richardson comments:

“It offered him an almost endless series of intensely dramatic events. His visions of the looming tower of Babel, the plague of darkness in Egypt, the death of Samson, Isaiah’s vision of the destruction of Babylon; these vast, forbidding scenes, heavy with doom, remind one of the visions of John Martin. They also reveal many elements by now familiar in Doré’s work: the mountain scenes, the lurid skies, the complicated battles, the almost unremitting brutalism. Doré’s illustrations of the Old Testament remind us, above all, of the God of Wrath: of massacres and murders, decapitations and avenging angels. There is, too, a period element: the angels are Victorian angels, full of sentiment; the women are, again, keepsake women, the children are Victorian children: sentimental or wise beyond their years.10

      In service to his biographers statement, let us take a look at the scenes of utmost terror, warfare and wrath Dore portrayed in his work.


The Wrath of God and Man


      Humanity is built by bones and we will never cease to add to the number we sit atop of. To push sheer genocidal numbers of death to the side as a species we have instilled within us a white hot wrath – and our God’s normally exemplify that power to the maximum. Whether we are moved to anger by jealousy, conquest, justice or fear, we have ample examples in the past and present to remind us of our great power and how we must quell it in order to avoid the roads to Hell. Dore shows us this wrath and the wrath that God smote to the world in the many stories of the Old Testament and even of the wrath of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

      Dore’s portrayal of wrath and warfare is very concentrated with drama. We can turn our first look towards the engraving of the Death of Abel, the first hint of what’s to come not only in subsequent engravings of violence, but also showing the lengths humanity is willing to go in order to achieve “justice”. The piece shows only the aftermath of Cain’s murder, not the means in which he performed it. This is quite a refreshing portrayal of the story as previous artists have always focused on the brutality of Abel’s death 11, rather than the consequences of the act like how Dore pictures it (with the exception of a few, notably William Blake’s portrayal of the scene 12.)



Gustave Dore, Cain slays Abel, Old Testament


      The meaning and ultimate consequences of Cain’s act can be seen in the lightning illuminating the scene taking place in the ditch below: the corpse of Able, Cain standing far away from his brother in a murderous posture, club in hand and the wrath of God brooding in the darkened clouds above. We may also see a coiled up serpent to the side of the ditch: a visual cameo from other works by Dore but also a subtle motif of an act committed from evil.13There is something to be thought about when looking at the aftermath of an event that somehow leaves a greater impression upon the viewer than if they were there to witness it themselves as a great vacuum is left within the mind for wonder and fantasy, not to mention the longing of seeing exactly what happened if the viewer had attended. There is none of that when seeing the act of Abel’s death portrayed in all of its brutality, however, as the viewer will feel only a dull sense of Cain’s anger and Abel’s helplessness, a feeling most artists have striven to portray in many pieces outside of this subject, all in accordance with shock value.

      We see here a scene that leaves us with an impression of injustice from the blind anger of Cain but there is more so a deep understanding from how the scene is portrayed that this marks a turning point, the point of no return: the consequences of Abel’s death leading to Cain’s banishment and the beginning of his damned lineage. This could only be felt by the way in which the dramatic aspects of the piece mentioned before harmonize together into a shocking scene rich with drama. Let us turn now to another illustration by Dore which portrays an identical feature of the point of no return, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still.


Gustave Dore, Joshua Commands the Sun to Stand Still, Old Testament


      There are a number of engravings Dore made about the Book of Joshua, all featuring warfare in mid-combat but none are as impressive as Joshua’s command, for it gives us that very same feeling of consequence and also a grand perspective on the fantastical battle between Joshua and the Amorites. What’s meant by perspective is both the scale of the land portrayed and also of the indisposed soldiers behind the main army with the sun’s rays beckoning to the centre of the battle. We have laid out for us a feast for the eyes and a feast for the imagination: the charging of the cavalry, the signal of Joshua, the armies in the distance, the landscape that surrounds them and the sun following Joshua’s command. Dore captured in essence a faithful account of what is written in the Book of Joshua to a great degree of success, whilst also giving us a rare glimpse into a scene of biblical warfare.

      Another line of subjects that give a surprising amount of violence in the holy sense are the many angels Dore portrayed throughout his entire work. Though normally thought of as sweet deities, many religions and works of literature have portrayed them as fierce agents of the God they serve and Dore’s many depictions of them are no exception. They serve as the example of God’s wrath and the swift fashion in which it is passed, exemplified by Dore’s An Angel Appears to Balaam, The Firstborn of the Egyptians Are Slain, The Crowned Virgin and The Last Judgment. 


Gustave Dore, An Angel Appears to Balaam, Old Testament


      There are far more to marvel at, but the point is that Dore’s angels are fierce and mark quite an example of the divine wrath talked about in many works around the world. The divine wrath can also be found in The Buyers and Sellers Driven Out of the Temple, a portrayal of Jesus Christ sending out the many men who had defiled the temple into the streets with force. Though there are no soldiers, swords or death, this engraving shows us the power Dore put into the moment portrayed, by the quivering merchants and the driven expression of Christ.


Gustave Dore, The Buyers and Sellers are Driven out of the Temple, New Testament 


      Though brief, this article and any other article talking about art must kneel to the simple fact that the content written therein is intended to be supplemental towards the viewer and the art discussed: meaning what can be said is written in a suggestive and limited manner to spur the dazzling thoughts one may have when looking at the piece of art discussed themselves.

      It is important that we have good art to look upon that captures crucial scenes and thoughts in order to better understand the chaos that is life. That’s why art discussion must live on and also the voyage of art must be undertaken by any who are wanting to educate themselves on the subject, either as a green-horn or a seasoned veteran. Gustave Dore left such a treasure trove of powerful art behind that those truly interested in art should give his legacy a close examination.


To see a collection of Dore’s work, visit the Wikipedia Commons Pages for both the Bible and his other works. 




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1.  “Le Christ Quittant le Prétoire”, Dore, 1867-1872, an example lambasted for its ‘wonky crucifix’. Émile Zola famously said that Dore should “throw out the paintbrush and pick up the plume again”, a criticism held by many French critics of the time towards Dore’s paintings.
2. See Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) and the Mona Lisa Effect.
3.  “..e drizzeremo li occhi al primo amore, sì che, guardando verso lui, penètri, quant’è possibil per lo suo fulgore.” (and turn our vision to the Primal Love, that, gazing at Him, you may penetrate—as far as that can be—His radiance.) Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Par. 32.142-44.
4. Matthew 27:59-60, KJV
5. Zdzisław Beksiński (1929-2005) depicts although fantastical realms of nightmare, still amps up the drama of death in his work and they are generally void of any grace. A great artist in his own right, however.
6. See Félix-Joseph Barrias (1822-1907) and his “The Temptation of Christ by the Devil”.
7. See “The Temptation of the Devil”, New Testament Engravings, Dore.
8. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV
9. Isaiah 14:12
10. Joanna Richardson: Gustave Doré, 1980.
11. All under the subject of “Cain and Abel”, with a more brutal tinge, the artists that come to mind are: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld  (1794–1872), Cornelis van Haarlem (1562-1638) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).
12. See “The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve” William Blake, 1826.
13. See “Satan Contemplates a Serpent” and “Satan as a Serpent Enters Paradise” (Dore, Paradise Lost)  to see the motif of twisted serpents and a visual of serpents in relation to Satan.