To talk to you about the scope of Gustave Doré’s ambitions, I might direct you to the variety of his work, and the degree to which it was disseminated. Though best known as an ingenious illustrator, Doré (1832-1883) also made sculpture, he drafted in various styles, he experimented in printmaking of several types, and he painted in both oil and watercolors. His woodcut illustrations were commissioned broadly, and accompanied many of the canonical works of Western literature, including celebrated editions of The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Don Quixote, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” The Song of Roland, and the Bible.
During his lifetime, a gallery was dedicated to his work in London, he was photographed by the one and only Nadar, and when he died at the age of 51, he was interred in Paris’s famous Cimetière du Père Lachaise. To posterity, one expert claims he left over one hundred thousand individual works, while even a conservative estimate puts it at over eleven thousand. That body of work has, in turn, been responsible for influencing countless illustrators—perhaps even inspiring our earliest comic books—and establishing visual tropes that still appear today in print and cinematic forms. There is no question that Doré sought to establish his legacy with a singular determination, and he succeeded in many ways.
To fully understand the scale of his ambitions, however, I might argue that we must sit down in front of his chef d’oeuvre, Christ Leaving the Praetorium (1867-1872), a massive oil painting measuring 6 x 9 meters, permanently on display in the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and confront it. The painting is not life-sized but, truly speaking, larger than life, dwarfing nearly everything else in the museum, including the spectator. Looming above, Jesus stands in the center of an awful crowd, the members of which are mostly locked in grotesque poses of fear, pity, and anguish (we can see certain demonic faces transposed from an earlier work, The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1866)). Strange effects of light leave parts of the mob swathed in almost complete darkness, while key figures like Christ and the Virgin Mary glow with an uncanny radiance. But they are just two among hundreds, many of whom appear unfinished and inhuman, while all invoke a sense of the uncanny.
Painters, both before and after, have worked in larger proportions (we might take Fumiani’s painting on the ceiling of San Pantalon as a prime example), but what makes the scale of Doré’s painting so stunning is how it stands alongside that of his work as an illustrator. Having completed over nine thousand illustrations in his relatively short life, Doré revealed himself to be an exquisite miniaturist, whether rendering the chaos of the forest in one of La Fontaine’s fables, or portraying the lines of suffering in the faces of the damned in Dante’s Inferno. The distinctive, fantastic style of his woodcuts earned him fame and fortune in his lifetime and established his reputation in his native France as a preeminent illustrator.
The grandeur of Christ Leaving the Praetorium, however, comes from another Gustave Doré, not the celebrated illustrator, but the one who wanted desperately to be known as a painter (much as Borges wanted to be known as a poet). In 1861, he declared, “For the moment, I am my own rival. I must efface and kill the illustrator in order that one only speaks of me as a painter.” And he tried, with historians estimating he completed nearly two hundred paintings in the last fifteen years of his life.
But even so, he was lambasted by French critics for his attempts, with Emile Zola famously advising that he should “throw out the paintbrush and pick up the plume again.” In fact, it was only in the English-speaking world that he found respect for his work on canvas, and his greatest painting was created especially for his personal gallery in London. We can’t entirely dismiss his French critics, though. No, not when we can see before us the glaring error in perspective revealed in the cross being dragged before Jesus. It appears stunted or, at the very best, otherworldly, and it suggests that even Doré himself had been crowded by the masses in his painting, leaving him with barely enough room to place a wonky crucifix. On that basis alone, it is possible to view the painting as a failure, with a central piece of iconography disrupting the composition of the piece.
And then the traces of his sense of the fantastic are still there—is this a biblical scene, or another of La Fontaine’s fables?—with Christ many times more God than human, and the humans many times more bestial. It’s hard to deny, when turning to his religious illustrations, that they are every bit as fantastic, and every bit as excessive, but there is a grace in them missing from his work in oils.
Still, painting brought him international fame, with a traveling exhibition of his works, including Christ Leaving the Praetorium, touring England and the United States for years, notably in one show that stopped in major US cities after his death, from 1892 until 1898. In a strange detour, for almost fifty years, no one knew what became of those paintings after the exhibition finished. His prints and drawings were collected, exhibited, celebrated, and used to cement his reputation as an illustrator among critics and historians. It was only in 1947 that the paintings were discovered rolled up and packed away, showing heavy damage from time and travel, in a Manhattan warehouse—the almost forgotten evidence of Doré’s life as a painter.
I think we should count ourselves lucky it didn’t take longer to find the paintings, at a point when they couldn’t be saved. They are flawed, yes, but they reflect Doré’s yearning, an artist who otherwise enjoyed a distribution and popularity of his work that had been nearly unheard of during one’s lifetime, and which ought to have satisfied him. That is, if there was satisfaction to be had in art. Sitting in front of his massive painting, we certainly don’t have the sense that Doré or anyone could be satisfied, or even relieved by this vision of Christ. Instead, we get a sense the painting is something of a failure and that this is what puts it beyond value. It is a testament to the struggle Doré was making and couldn’t quite manage. It’s skewed and dark. Unsettling. I can’t help but look at it and think of what William Blake had to say about Milton, giving that he “wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell,” because “he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Somehow, this seems to have been Doré’s cross to bear as well.