Gustave Doré, Born a Painter

Bourg-en-Bresse, Musée du Monastère royal de Brou, from 12 May to 16 September 2012.

1. Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Landscape of Britanny or Scotland (?), 1875-1880
Oil on Canvas - 116 x 198 cm
Bourg-en-Bresse, Musée du monastère royal de Brou
Photo : Musée du monastère royal de Brou

No man is a prophet in his own country. Despite his success as an illustrator, Gustave Doré must have often reflected on this age-old maxim. The artist thought of himself above all as a painter but he was never acknowledged as such in France and he is known to have suffered from it : "I have been told for a long time that painting would make me despair of life.". As late as 1954, Hans Haug, curator at the Musée de Strasbourg during a retrospective featuring the artist, wrote that "Doré remained a failed painter" !
It was only in the 1980’s that French museums began to take a real interest in his painted work, notably thanks to the acquisition of several large canvases.

The retrospective organized at the museum in Brou is mainly devoted to this aspect of Doré. Given the obvious restrictions of space and budget, the most monumental paintings will not be on view (some measure up to seven meters). However, it pays due tribute to the artist’s qualities in this domain, also revealing that he produced fine small formats.

A self-taught artist, Doré is not easily classified, a bad sign for posterity. However, with a bit of objectivity, we might see him as a late Romantic like some of his fellow painters, such as François Chifflart and Charles Meyron. He was a profuse artist, in love with Dante, Victor Hugo and Byron but no doubt was born thirty years too late.
His work, therefore, cannot be summed up only in his illustrations. Doré was indeed also a painter, very prolific at that, the author of some impressive pieces, recognized at least in England (where a gallery was inaugurated in his name) and in the United States where he was sought after by many collectors.

The exhibition in Bourg-en-Bresse opens with a decorative art object, a sculpted mirror, reminding us that Doré wished to be a complete artist. This bronze, exhibited at the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1868, is almost Neo-Rococo and in fact very different from the rest of his work.
After a few drawings and caricatures, the retrospective really begins with a section presenting landscapes, either paintings or watercolors. Influenced both by the Barbizon school and by Courbet (see notably his Landscape of Britanny or Scotland - ill. 1), Doré also liked to paint vast mountain scenes in a style reminiscent of the Hudson River school. As noted in one of the catalogue entries, this similarity (in fact no doubt accidental) may explain his popularity in America.

2. Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
The Enigma, 1871
Oil on Canvas - 130 x 195.5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN/J. Schormans

We next discover genre scenes, notably those inspired by Spain, which he often visited. These figures of paupers or street musicians serve to illustrate a realism we might qualify as picturesque and which is often close to that of contemporaneous painters such as Henri Regnault. This is however not the best aspect of his work, some of the canvases being affectedly sentimental. But there is a small pochade, Spanish Siesta on loan from the Michel Descours gallery, projecting a spontaneity and freedom which almost makes it look like a watercolor instead of an oil.

Doré excelled as a painter of historic compositions and he probably would have liked to be identified as such. The Enigma from the Musée d’Orsay (ill. 2), an allegorical representation of the War of 1870 is an impressive painting, produced in the monochromatic shades often used by the artist, reflecting a certain permeability between his illustrations and the grand genre. We regret that two other catalogued works (The Prussian Black Eagle from the Dahesh Museum and The Defense of Paris from the Vassar College Art Gallery) are missing from the exhibition here. Both, also painted in monochromatic tones, with great winged figures, show that Doré knew how to renew his sources of inspiration although the subjects might be the same. Alsace Beaten, residing at the Conseil général du Haut-Rhin, seems less attractive in comparison.

3. Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
The Sculptor, circa 1866 ?
Oil on Canvas - 128 x 96 cm
Arnhem, Musée d’Art moderne
Photo : Didier Rykner

4. Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Vivien and Merlin, circa 1867
Oil on Canvas - 171 x 122 cm
London, Whitford Fine Art
Photo : Whitford Fine Art

As we have seen, Doré’s painting often came close to illustration, treated in a monumental manner. This is why he was perhaps subjected to bitter criticism (a catalogue essay tells us he was accused of "using his graphic work to aggrandize his canvases"). In any case, the paintings drawn from literature or stories and legends, those which (along with the allegories) can be qualified as "Romantic", are often of very high quality. Of special note is the representation of The Sculptor surrounded by flying angels (ill. 3). Here again, his inspiration can be compared to that of the first Romantics : in his work German Architecture (1722), Goethe celebrated the sculptor Erwin von Steinbach represented here above the Strasbourg cathedral where his grave was found in 1816.
Doré was also marked by Celtic legends, as we see in Vivien and Merlin, a large oil on canvas from the English art market which the Museum in Brou would like to add to its collections, (ill. 4). Here again, Doré’s work as a painter comes close to that of an illustrator since in the same year (1867) he illustrated and published in London, then in Paris the following year, the first collection of Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson from which this scene is taken, illustrating the line At Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay". The Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain in Strasbourg (with an entire room devoted to Doré) holds a very beautiful lavis or wash tint representing the same scene. _ Finally, Dante, still in the Romantic vein linked to his illustrations, is one of the artist’s greatest source of inspiration. Bourg-en-Bresse acquired a very beautiful painting in 1982 evoking Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of the Inferno (ill. 5). Due to its large size, it hangs in its usual spot, accompanied mainly by works of religious imagery.

5. Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of the Inferno, 1861
Oil on Canvas - 315 x 450 cm
Bourg-en-Bresse, Musée du monastère royal de Brou
Photo : Musée du monastère royal de Brou

6. Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
The Christian Martyrs, also known as
The Night in the Cirque, 1871
Oil on Canvas - 140 x 213.5 cm
Strasbourg, Musée d’Art moderne
Photo : Musée d’Art Moderne de Strasbourg

7. Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Calvary also known as
The Crucifixion, 1877
Oil on Canvas - 109.8 x 170.2 cm
Strasbourg, Musée d’Art moderne
Photo : Musée d’Art Moderne de Strasbourg

Indeed, Gustave Doré also produced a great number of religious paintings. But unlike many of his contemporaries, they were not intended for a church. Due to the indifference in France, he preferred England where his immense canvases hung at the Doré Gallery before being purchased (or not) by individual art lovers or museums. Most of the religious works presented in Bourg (true, these are small or medium-sized formats) remained in his studio until he died.
Even more perhaps than artists like Gérôme or Cabanel, Gustave Doré’s works were ahead of their time in prefiguring peplum or sword-and-sandal scenes made popular later in cinematography (ill. 6). Excess appears everywhere in his canvases, beginning with their size. The scenes often take place at night, with a fantastic aspect which sometimes find its inspiration in a Rembrandt-like atmosphere, obvious in Tobie’s Angel, alluding to the Louvre painting, as in Calvary (ill. 7) which inevitably recalls the engraving The Three Crosses ; at times in the English, like John Martin’s in The Valley of Tears (Petit Palais, not exhibited but reproduced in the catalogue). In fact, all of these questions are thoroughly analyzed in the catalogue.

The exhibition in Bourg-en-Bresse is thus, insofar as it relies of course on relatively modest means, a fine introduction to Doré’s art. We find it all the more commendable for this regional museum since the Petit Palais in Paris, which is fortunate in owning three large formats by the artist, but only displays one [1]. Gustave Doré really deserves much more [2] and we hope that the next museum director (who should be appointed in the near future) will take these two immense paintings from storage, where they should have never been in the first place, allowing visitors to admire this very original genius, a famous illustrator but also a monumental painter.

Curators : Benoît-Henry Papounaud, Magali Briat-Philippe and Jérôme Pontarollo.

Collective work, Gustave Doré, un peintre-né, 2012, Somogy Editions d’Art, 160 p., 25€. ISBN : 978-2-7572-0551-8.

Visitor information : Musée du Monastère royal de Brou, 63 boulevard de Brou, 01000 Bourg-en-Bresse. Tel : +33 (0)3 27 22 57 20. Open every day from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission : 7.50€

Museum website

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 14 août 2012


[1] Even the collection database shows only one. However, we should point out that it has grown since first posted, with the Musée Carnavalet now offering a little over 18,000 works, and the Petit Palais almost 2,700. We have been told that a significant part of the works held in churches will be posted before the end of this year.

[2] The Musée d’Orsay is also planning a restrospective.

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