Artful Blogger

ARTFUL BLOGGER: National Gallery show reveals how Gustave Doré’s 19th century illustrations haunt us still

By  PAUL GESSELL

Gustave Doré, Oceanids or Naiads of the Sea, c. 1878 Oil on canvas, 127 × 185.4 cm Lawrence B. Berenson
Gustave Doré, Oceanids or Naiads of the Sea, c. 1878
Oil on canvas, 127 × 185.4 cm
Lawrence B. Berenson

Gustave Doré is hardly a household name. But this 19th century French artist is the main attraction this summer at the National Gallery of Canada’s exhibit Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination. So, take a look. You will be pleasantly surprised to realize you have vague recollections of having seen his work before. Hundreds of times.

Doré was a prolific and talented illustrator. He produced illustrated copies of many great works of literature, including Don Quixote, The Bible, Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, and many traditional fairy tales.

The images (or their spin-offs) he created for these books are still regularly seen today. Some of the mythical creatures in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, Lord of the Rings, were lifted straight from Dore. Or the Puss-n-Boots-like character in the Shrek 2 movie? Dore did it first. Or remember Charlton Heston as Moses in the Hollywood blockbuster The Ten Commandments? The scene in which an angry Moses smashes the tablets with the commandments was inspired by Doré. On and on it goes. He is even given credit for inventing a relative of the beast we know as King Kong.

Gustave Doré, The Triumph of Christianity over Paganism, 1868 Oil on canvas, 300 × 200 cm Art Gallery of Hamilton, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Collection, 2002 (2002.33.18)
Gustave Doré, The Triumph of Christianity over Paganism, 1868
Oil on canvas, 300 × 200 cm
Art Gallery of Hamilton, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Collection, 2002 (2002.33.18)

The 100 or so works in the National Gallery summer-long show include film clips allowing visitors to see the uncanny and repeated use of Doré-like images in popular culture throughout the 20th century and beyond. No other 19th century artist has had such a strong influence on pop culture today.

Doré’s place in history is secure. But as an illustrator. It is not the place he wanted. Instead, he wanted to be seen as a great painter. However, the critics of the day were cool to his work, which was terribly old-fashioned. As well, Doré was up against such competitors as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and assorted other impressionists and modernists who were re-inventing painting. Doré was more content to root around the past painting neo-classical allegories.

My favourite painting in the exhibition is called The Street Performers, from 1874. A bloodied child, seemingly moments before death, is held by his mother while his father and assorted costumed animals look on. The child has apparently fallen off a tightrope. His injuries seem fatal. Doré hoped viewers of this painting would sympathize with the child and hold the parents in contempt for risking their child’s life to earn a few pennies. It’s a narrative hard to forget.

Doré was also a sculptor. The best in show is a life-sized plaster sculpture called Fame Stifling Genius from 1878. We see the evil lady Fame embracing a young male, Genius, but stabbing him in the heart.

In some ways, it is an odd subject for Doré. He sought fame yet was aware that the pursuit of fame could stifle creativity. In the end, he did achieve fame. But not for the reasons he had hoped.

The Doré exhibition was organized by the National Gallery in collaboration with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, where the show drew huge crowds. The chief Canadian curator for the exhibition is Paul Lang, the National Gallery’s deputy director and chief curator.

Gustave Doré : Master of Imagination continues at the National Gallery until Sept. 14.