Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was nineteenth-century France’s most productive book illustrator, producing classic editions of Dante, Rabelais, Don Quixote, and La Fontaine. But his most famous and influential work was the great illustrated Bible of 1866. A publisher from Tours who specialized in prayer books commissioned this Bible, a costly and risky undertaking at the time. But La Sainte Bible with nearly 250 illustrations sold three thousand copies within a month at 200 francs each. The English edition produced by the London firm of Cassell appeared the next year, and the Doré Bible, as it became known, was to be translated into almost every language on earth, including Hebrew in a German publication of 1874.
Doré was born in 1832 in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, literally in the shadow of its great cathedral, whose dark Gothic quality seems to have inspired many of his works. A precocious self-taught draughtsman, he went at age 16 to Paris to begin his career producing cartoons and illustrations for weekly journals and then progressed to his book illustrations. It was the newly developed process of electrotype that allowed for his designs, drawn rapidly on to woodblocks, to be cut by specially trained artisans and then mass-duplicated without any loss of quality.
The artist carefully read the biblical text of both the Old and New Testaments and illustrated not only well-known events but many minor and unusual ones. For his images Doré pillaged the entire range of art history from Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian to such more recent artists as Francis Denby and John Martin. He also incorporated archaeological details from photographs of Egypt and the Near East. The result was dramatic, theatrical, and even cinematic in its approach. For the first time, it was possible for ordinary individuals to own or have handy the entire gamut of the Bible, which had previously been limited to only the very wealthy.
Dore’s Bible begins with Genesis 1:2—the creation of light. Doré wisely chose here and in most subsequent scenes not to portray God or Jehovah. The publication ends with the book of Revelation in St. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, a glowing creation out of darkness. In the course of what transpires in between, Doré tends to contrast great multi-figure scenes of mass action such as the famous image of “Samson Destroying the Pagan Temple” with more private intimate moments, such as those of the prophets in meditation and occasional scenes of disturbingly violent action. Particularly successful was his imagining of the Deluge, a subject he had first treated in a salon painting of 1863 and then repeated in various forms, especially a drawing in the Phoenix Art Museum showing everything destroyed by the rising water and just a human mother and a tiger mother on a mountaintop trying to save their offspring. To get even more commercial reward out of his great endeavor, Doré often worked up the woodblock illustrations into finished works of art or made larger variant studies of his most successful themes. Particularly effective were the ones he did of the Apocalypse, such as the large drawing of The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (in the Wadsworth Atheneum).
After creating his Bible, Doré, a professed Roman Catholic, although not a church communicant, told friends that God had been very good to him. He added further, “Of all I have ever done, nothing has ever affected me so deeply as have my religious works. I consider that my greatest and truest inspirations were derived from my most sacred subjects, and I have never felt such fervor with respect to any other task. It did my soul good to labor at them.”
Doré longed to be accepted as a painter even though he had no formal training. He had painted some religious scenes even before producing the Bible, and he continued to show them at the annual Paris Salons. In 1865 there was the Angel Appearing to Tobias, in 1867 a Moses in the Bullrushes and a Jepthas’s Daughter, and in 1869 a Christ Leaving the Tomb. The success of the Doré Bible led his English publisher to exhibit some of the artist’s prints and paintings on the premises, and when Doré visited London in 1868, he and his work were so well received that it was decided in 1869 to create a permanent Doré Gallery, which opened at 35 New Bond Street, the location of present-day Sotheby’s. To launch this venture Doré was commissioned to paint his enormous Triumph of Christianity over Paganism, a canvas (now in the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario) nearly ten feet high and seven feet wide that serves as a painted triumphal hymn of Christianity over all the impure faiths of the ancient world.
One of Doré’s closest friends in London, who often played host to him, was the Rev. Frederick Harford, a minor canon of Westminster. It was supposedly to him that Doré confided that his own religious beliefs were based on the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians that he quoted from memory: “a man must be a good man to his fellows in thought and in deed.” It was their discussions on religion in art that led Doré to produce his most monumental biblical painting, the rarely depicted scene of Christ Leaving the Praetorium, a moment from the Passion when after his judgment Christ came forth from the Praetorium before taking up the cross. This enormous work (now in the Musée d’Art moderne, Strasbourg) measured 20 by 30 feet, and its completion was interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Finally Doré showed it in Paris in 1872 and then sent it to London, where it was enthusiastically praised for its pathos and grandeur, which brought the scene to life like a huge tableau vivant.
Almost annually Doré continued to produce for the Salon and the Doré Gallery a series of biblical subjects. In 1872 there was the Massacre of the Innocents, and the following year The Night of the Crucifixion. Then in 1874 came the more unusual The Dream of Pilate’s Wife Claudia Procula (Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario), illustrating a verse from Matthew 27:19 in which Pilate’s wife warns her husband not to have anything to do with Christ, for in her dream she has had a vision of him adored by crowds of worshippers of all peoples and lands. For the Salon of 1875 there was a smaller, more intimate The House of Caiphas (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), which shows the moment in Luke 22:1–4 when Judas decides to betray Christ and visits the High Priest Caiaphas. It is a very Rembrandtesque treatment with Judas in shadow and Jesus preaching in the distance bathed in radiant light.
For the Paris Salon of 1878 Doré painted a very large Old Testament subject, The Prostrate Jews (sometimes titled Moses Before Pharaoh), which shows the aftermath of the tenth plague (Exod 11, 12). For the print version of this, the artist produced a highly finished drawing now in the Dahesh Museum, New York City.
Among Doré’s last grand biblical themes was a pair of large arch-topped paintings, the Ecce Homo of 1877 and the Ascension of 1879, which served to contrast the depth of earthly humiliation with the supernatural glory of the risen Christ. It was, in fact, after the experience of the Franco-Prussian War that Doré became obsessed by the face of Christ and produced an extensive series of drawings and paintings of his tormented features.
After his death, Doré’s images continued to grow in fame and popularity. Many of his biblical paintings, including Christ Leaving the Praetorium, were sent in the selection of the Doré Gallery that toured America for several years beginning in 1893. So famous did Doré’s religious creations become that they were reproduced in many other media. There were stained glass windows designed by Tiffany and tiny chromolithographic lesson cards for Sunday school courses plus numerous pirated editions of the Bible illustrations. Even today, plates from the Doré Bible continue to be used for illustrative and advertising purposes.
Mention of Doré’s religious and biblical production is noted in the two standard nineteenth-century biographies of the artist by Blanche Roosevelt (1885) and Blanchard Jerrold (1891). In more recent times the subject has been dealt with by Dan Malan, whose book lists all known editions of the Doré Bible. The subject has been treated in various exhibition catalogs on Doré, such as that in Strasbourg in 1983 and in the monographs by Annie Renonciat (1983) and Philippe Kaenel (1985). A good study of the Doré Bible is the introduction to the Dover Publications reprint by Millicent Rose (1974). The fullest overview of Doré as a creator of religious images is to be found in exhibition catalogs: the 2007 Fantasy and Faith: The Art of Gustave Doré of the Dahesh Museum, and Gustave Doré, 1832–1883: Master of the Imagination, shown in Paris and Ottawa in 2014.
- Gustave Doré. Strasbourg, France: Musée d’Art Moderne, 1983.
- Jerrold, Blanchard. Life of Gustave Doré. London: W. H. Allen, 1891.
- Kaenel, Philippe. Gustave Doré, Réaliste et Visionnaire. Geneva, Switzerland: Editions du Tricorne, 1985.
- Lang, Paul, Edouard Papet, and Philippe Kaenel. Gustave Doré 1832–1883: Master of Imagination. Paris: Musée d’Orsay; Ottawa, Ont.: National Gallery of Canada, 2014.
- Malan, Dan. Gustave Doré: Adrift on Dreams of Splendor. St. Louis, Mo.: Malan, 1995.
- Renonciat, Annie. La vie et l’oeuvre de Gustave Doré. Paris: ACR, 1983.
- Roosevelt, Blanche. Life and Reminiscences of Gustave Doré. New York: Cassell, 1885.
- Rose, Millicent. “Introduction.” In The Doré Bible Illustrations, 241 Plates by Gustave Doré, pp. v–x. New York: Dover, 1974.
- Zafran, Eric. “Religious Subjects.” In Fantasy and Faith: The Art of Gustave Doré, pp. 64–89. New York: Dahesh Museum of Art, 2007.