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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Gustave Dore

Satan from John Milton's Paradise Lost, Gustave Dore
Gustave Dore Self-portrait, 1830s
Even though none of us has ever seen Him, virtually all of us have a pretty good idea what Jesus looks like. For that we have to thank any number of artists from the present to the roots of Christendom almost two-thousand years ago. But, on the opposite side of the coin, what does the devil look like? Modern iconography invariably pictures him as a cute little imp, red in color, with tiny horns, a pointy tail, and his ever-present pitchfork. Accurate? Probably not, but then, who's to say? Well, one such individual might be Gustave Dore, the French painter, engraver, and illustrator from the mid-19th century. Apart from the "little devil" mentioned above, this man has had more to do with our perceived image of Lucifer than any other artist, second only to Dante Alighieri. He was the 13th century Italian poet who (apart from the Bible) all but "invented" the god of the underworld based on his Divine Comedy, and its opening chapter, The Inferno followed by Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

Casting Down Rebellious Angels, from Paradise Lost, Gustave Dore.
Jesus Fallen Beneath the Cross,
1860s, Gustave Dore
Gustave Dore, born in 1832, collaborated with Dante and John Milton (Paradise Lost) even though they never met and, in fact, lived centuries apart. He illustrated their books, and interpreting their literary images, at times with no small amount of artistic license. His Satan (top) derives from this effort. He's not all red but his bat-wings are, though he seems to have misplaced his pitchfork. Lest you think Dore only depicted satanic evil and its environs, the man also took on the monumental task of illustrating the entire Bible, and did so with more no-nonsense accuracy than had ever been seen before. Dante and Milton were relatively minor undertakings compared to his hundreds of incidents from the holy scriptures (left). Working as a woodcut artist, Dore also took on the illustration of writers such as Cervantes, Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Byron, Coleridge, and Balzac.

Dore depicts 19th century urban sprawl and decay.
Little Red Riding Hood, Gustave Dore.
The "hood" was originally a red cap.
If all those names sound rather intimidating, keep in mind Dore also illustrated Little Red Riding Hood (right), Cinderella, Camelot, and the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Moreover, he was probably the first to depict death as embodied by the grim reaper. In 1868, Dore was commissioned by publisher, Douglas William Jerrold of Grant and Company, to create a comprehensive portrait of London, the first in sixty years. It was to be a long-term undertaking, spread over five years, for which he received the then astronomical sum of ten-thousand pounds. The completed book, London: A Pilgrimage, with 180 engravings was finally published in 1872. It was an immediate financial success, triggering dozens of other quite lucrative jobs, enough to keep Dore busy until his death in 1883. Critics, however panned the volume. With Dore's exploration of the seamy underbelly of the city (and thus that of British society) it seems they felt Dore's illustrations were a bit too comprehensive.

The Council of the Rats, Gustave Dore. Though probably intended by the
artist to be whimsical, this illustration from London: A Pilgrimage, likely
did nothing to endear Dore to the London Chamber of Commerce.


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