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Gustave Dore was an officer of the Legion of Honor, had attained considerable wealth, and was probably more widely known than any other artist of his day. His name was a household word in two continents. Yet he died a disappointed and embittered man, and is proclaimed by his friends as a neglected and misunderstood genius. He was known the world over as the most astonishingly prolific illustrator of books that has ever lived; he wished to be known in France as a great painter and a great sculptor, and because the artists and critics of France never seriously recognized his claims to this glory, he seems to have become a victim of the mania of persecution, and his naturally sunny nature was over-clouded with moroseness and suspicion. Hailed by some as the emulator and equal of the great names of the Italian Renaissance, and considered a great moral force--a "preacher painter"--by others he has been denounced as "designer in chief to the devil," and described as a man wallowing in all foulness and horror, a sort of demon of frightful power. Both these extreme judgments are English. The late Blanchard Jerrold, an intimate friend and collaborator of the artist, takes the first view. Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Hamerton have taken the second. Dore's own countrymen have never accepted either. Just where, between them, the truth lies, as we see it, we shall endeavor to show in this article.
The main facts of Dore's life may be dismissed very briefly. He was born with a caul on January 6, 1832, in the Rue Bleue at Strasbourg, near the Cathedral. About 1841 his father removed to Bourg, in the Department of Ain, where he was chief government engineer of the department. These two residences of the young artist are supposed to account for the mastery of Gothic architecture and of mountain scenery which his admirers find in his mature work. He showed very early in life a passion for drawing, and, as a small child, had always a pencil in his hand, which he begged to have "sharpened at both ends," that he might work longer without interruption. His father intended him for an engineer, but he was determined from the first to be an artist. He was of a gay and jovial disposition, given to pranks and practical jokes, and of an athletic temperament. Theophile Gautier afterward called him a "gamin de genie." In 1847, when he was fifteen years old, being in Paris with his parents, he called upon Phillippon, the publisher, and showed him some of his sketches. M. Phillippon looked at them, and sent a letter to Dore's parents, persuading them to allow the boy to remain in Paris, and promising them to begin using his work at once and to pay for it. Thus, without any study of art whatever, he began his career, and in a few years had produced a prodigious quantity of work, and was a celebrated man before he was twenty. No one knows how many drawings he made. He "lived like an Arab," worked early and late, and with astonishing rapidity made thousands of drawings for the comic papers, besides early beginning the publication of independent books. One estimate, which Mr. Jerrold thinks excessive, credits him with having published forty thousand drawings before he was forty! Mr. Jerrold himself reckons two hundred and sixty-six drawings done in one year. His "Labors of Hercules" was brought out in 1848, when he was sixteen, and before he was twenty-seven he had published his "Holy Russia," his "Wandering Jew," his illustrations to Balzac's "Contes Drolatiques," to Rabelais, and many other authors. His best work was done at an age when most artists are painfully acquiring the rudiments of their art. We all know the books that followed.
Meanwhile he was determined to be known as a great painter, and, while flooding the market with his countless illustrations, was working at great canvases of Biblical subjects, which, though the French would not accept them, were hugely admired in the Dore Gallery of London. Later he tried sculpture also, and his last work was a monument to Alexandre Dumas, which he made at his own expense, and presented to the city of Paris. He died in the beginning of the year 1883, worn out with excessive production--a great name, but an unsatisfied man.
Mr. Jerrold has divided his book into two parts, dealing first with Dore the illustrator, and then with Dore the painter and sculptor. It is an eminently natural arrangement, and, in our effort to arrive at Dore's true position in art, we cannot do better than to follow it.
Dore's earliest work was frankly that of a caricaturist. He had a quick eye, no training, and a certain extravagant imagination, and caricature was his inevitable field. He was, however, as Mr. Jerrold himself remarks, "a caricaturist who seldom raises a laugh." Not hearty fun, still less delicate humor, was his. In the higher qualities of caricature his contemporaries, Daumier and Gavarni, were vastly his superiors. An exuberance of grotesque fancy and a recklessness of exaggeration were his dominant notes. His earlier work, up to and including the Rabelais, is not really funny--to many minds it is even painful--but it is unmistakably caricature of a dashing, savage sort. To our mind it remains his best work, and that by which he is most likely to live. At least it is the work that formed him and fixed his characteristics, and an understanding of it is essential to any judgment of him. The qualities and the defects of his later work--that which is most praised and most blamed in his production--are inherent in the work of this period, and are best explained by a reference to the latter.
Take, for instance, what has been denounced as his love of horrors and of foulness, his delight in blood and massacre. He is scored for this as if he were one of that modern French school, beginning, perhaps, with Regnault, who have revelled in the realistic presentation of executions and battles, and have sought to effect by sheer sensationalism what they could not by gentler means. It is surprising that his critics have not seen that Dore's battles are always, even to the end, the battles of a caricaturist. His decapitated trunks, cloven heads, smoking hearts, arms still fighting though severed from their bodies, are simply a debauch of grim humor. There is never the slightest attempt to realize carnage--only to convey, by the caricaturist's exaggeration, an idea of colossally impossible bloodthirstiness. One may not enjoy this kind of fun, but to take it seriously, as the emanation of a gloomy and diabolic genius, is absurd.
The same test is equally destructive of much of the praise Dore has received. He is constantly spoken of, even by severe critics of his painting, as a great illustrator who identified himself with the minds of one great writer after another. But Dore identified himself with no one; he was always Dore. Even in these early drawings he cannot keep to the spirit of the text, though the subjects suited him much better than many he tried later. There is a great deal of broad gayety and "Gallic wit" in the "Contes Drolatiques," but it was not broad enough for Dore, and he has converted its most human characters into impossible grotesques.
Another thing for which Dore is praised is his wonderful memory. Mr. Jerrold repeats more than once Dore's phrase, "I have lots of collodion in my head," and recounts how he could scarcely be induced to make sketches from nature, but relied upon his memory. He also speaks of Dore's system of dividing and subdividing a subject, and noting the details in their places, so that he could reproduce the whole afterward. This question of work from memory is one of the most vital for an understanding of Dore, and one of general interest in all matters of art, and is worth attention. Of course, a man who made hundreds of drawings every year could not work much from nature, and came to rely upon his memory. But what is the nature of artistic memory, and how does it perform its task? We think the truth is, that the artist who habitually works from memory, fills in his details, not from memory of the object, but from memory of the way he has formerly drawn similar objects. He reverts to a series of formulae that he has gradually accumulated. This man must have a cloak. This is the way a cloak is done. A hand? Nothing can be easier; the hand formula is ready. The stock in trade of the professional illustrator and caricaturist is made up of a thousand such formulae--methods of expression that convey the idea readily enough to the spectator, but have little relation to fact. So it is that Dore never learned, in the true sense, to draw. He had made for himself a sort of artistic shorthand, which enabled him to convey his superabundant ideas quickly and certainly to his public, but his drawing is what is called mannered in the extreme. It is not representation of nature at all, but pure formula and chic. He is said to be a master of drapery, but he never drew a single fold correctly. He is said to show great knowledge of Gothic architecture, but he never drew well a single column or finial. In his later years he studied anatomy with great perseverance, and advocated the necessity of dissection, saying, "Il faut fourrer la main dedans" (You must stick your hand in it); but the manner was formed, and he never drew a leg with a bone in it.
With this equipment he illustrated Don Quixote, Dante, the Bible. Is it strange that he shows no sympathy with the grand simplicity of Dante, or the subtle humor of Cervantes, and that we can only be thankful that he never completed his projected illustrations to Shakespeare? Dore, the illustrator, was fecund beyond precedent, possessed a certain strange drollery, had a wonderful flow of ideas, but was superficial, theatrical, and mannered, and as far from expressing real horror as from expressing real fun. What shall we say of Dore the painter and sculptor?
Mr. Jerrold reports a discussion between Dore and Theophile Gautier, in which the roles of artist and man of letters are strangely reversed. "Gautier and Dore," he says, "disagreed fundamentally on the aims and methods of art. Gautier loved correctness, perfect form--the technique, in short, of art; whereas Dore contended that art which said nothing, which conveyed no idea, albeit perfect in form and color, missed the highest quality and raison d'etre of art." What is plain from this is, that Gautier was an artist and cared first of all for art, while Dore was never an artist, properly speaking, at all, and never understood the artist's passion for perfection. To Dore, what was necessary was to express himself anyhow--who cared if the style was defective, the drawing bad, the color crude? The idea was the thing. His admirers can defend him only on this ground, and they adopt of necessity the Philistine point of view. The artists of Dore's time and country were very clear in their opinion. "The painters," says Mr. Jerrold, "said he could not paint."
The sculptors admitted that he had ideas in his groups, but he was not sculpturesque. His friends protest against this judgment, and attribute it, ad nauseam, to "malevolence" and "envy." What if his technique was less brilliant than that of Hals, they say; what if his shadows are less transparent than those of Rembrandt (and they will make no meaner comparison)? He is "teeming with noble thoughts," and these will put his work "on a level with the masterpieces of the Italian masters of the sixteenth century." It is the conception, the creation--not the perfect painting of legs and arms and heads, the harmonious grouping, the happy and delicate combination of color--by which the observer is held spell bound. All these qualities, which his admirers grudgingly admit that Dore had not, are classed as "mere dexterity," and are not considered worth a second thought.
This is the true literary gospel of art, but it is one that no artist, and no critic who has any true feeling of art, has ever accepted or will ever accept. Thoughts, ideas, conceptions, may enhance the value of a work of art, provided it is first of all a piece of beautiful art in itself, but they have never preserved, and never will preserve from oblivion bad painting or bad sculpture. The style is the artist, if not the man; and of the two, beautiful painting with no idea at all (granting, for the sake of argument, that it exists), will ever be infinitely more valuable to the world than the lame expression of the noblest thoughts. What may be the real value of Dore's thoughts is therefore a question with which we have no concern. As painter and sculptor, his lack of education and his great technical imperfections--his bad drawing, false light and shade, and crude color--relegate him forever to a rank far below mediocrity. Such reputation as he has is the result of the admiration of those altogether ignorant of art, but possessed of enough literary ability to trumpet abroad their praises of "great conceptions," and will as surely fade away to nothing as the reputation of such simple painters as Van Der Meer or Chardin will continue to grow, while painting as an art is loved and understood.