Etched into my Mind: Gustave Doré

As much as I insist on my lack of ability to truly appreciate the visual arts, and will always talk about my lacking the ‘eye’ of an aesthete, I know what I like when I see it.

I was first introduced to the etchings of Gustave Doré via an illustrated copy of “La Comedia Divina” or “The Divine Comedy”, the epic poem of Dante Alighieri. I believe his illustrations were for an 1866 edition, incidentally the year he also did etchings for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.

I will make no secret about this. Christian imagery, art and iconography is something I find absolutely fascinating. As much as I love to do nothing more than sit and contest the religion itself, the imagery that has burst out of this fascinating, eschatological, cult of pain and torture is nothing if not fantastic.  

A photograph of Gustav Doré by French photographer and artist Nadar – a pseudonym for Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (Credit: Nadar, Public Domain)

Doré, I think, understood this and his etchings seem to move, seem to live, they seem to be weird, shady mirrors into scenes of this religious world I will never understand.

Gustave Doré was French, from Strasbourg, and was an artist, printmaker, illustrator and much more – he did a lot! He lived between January 1832 and January 1883 and is probably most famous for his wood-etchings, that were used as illustrations for many major works of world literature, as well as the aforementioned Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, Doré also provided work for Byron, a version of “Don Quixote”, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, and a little known book called “The Bible”.

He was prolific, and I can guarantee even if you don’t know the name of Gustav Doré you have seen one of his etchings or illustrations.

Here’s the thing, I’d love to give a nice, long biography on Doré, his life, his controversies, his loves and losses – But I can’t. I mean, he had parents, I’m assuming they died at some point. He had a family I’m assuming they bickered at some point. But otherwise Doré just seems to have worked and that’s about it, that’s about all we know. So instead let’s just take a look at a few of my favourite works of Doré and talk about them!

We’ll start with that opener shall we, let’s see it again;

The Lion – “La Comedia Divina”

This is from Dante’s “Inferno” the first book in “La Comedia Divina” – During this scene, Dante is lost in a wilderness seemingly inspired by the hills around Tuscany, the region of Dante’s origin. Two things strike me as remarkable about it. One, Dante’s descriptions can only match those Tuscan hillsides in the mind of someone truly tortured by negative thoughts. Tuscany is beautiful, soul-caressingly beautiful and yet, there is an aspect to it that one could imagine, when the shadows sit just right on the land and your mind, this place could truly be the path to the entrance of hell.

This etching, though, I like for its desolation. The darkness and emptiness. It is Plate III and it represents the lines in Canto I

“Quest parea che contra me venisse
con la test’ alta e con rabbiosa fame,”

or in English (via the Longfellow translation associated with the plate)

“He seemed as if against me he was coming
with head uplifted, and with ravenous hunger.”

I used this passage myself in one of my own poems.

At this point we don’t know Dante’s story. We don’t know he mourns for his lost love. We don’t know why this man is alone in a dark forest. Given that he’s about to enter hell not too far away from here, I can’t help but feel that’s slightly intentional. How many of us wander into the depths of hell knowingly? Intending to do evil?

So Dante is beset upon by beasts that all seem to represent these sins-of-accident man is liable to fall into. A panther (or leopard), spotted and disguised, representing lies, dishonesty and fraud. The lion, with airs of anger, violence and pride. Finally, a she-wolf, representing lust, adultery, carnality – Need I remind you that she-wolf (lupa) was Latin slang for a prostitute!

This dark etching then, with a miserable, blob-like figure of man being stared down by a proud, almost heraldic lion, surrounded by darkness besides a small peeping light above the valley’s crack, is a celebration of vulnerability in the face of pride, anger and violence.

More than that it is, to me, a humility of man in the face of the violence of nature. It almost tells us it doesn’t matter how much pride we have, how much ill we do, how many people we hurt, nature will always be crueler. The lion is always out there ready to go one step further.

I think it’s a fantastic piece of artwork and it is definitely one of my favourites of Doré’s work on Dante.

Fallen Lucifer – “Paradise Lost”

The closest I ever got to getting a tattoo was this image, of the beautiful rebel, the Fallen Angel once known as Lucifer – the light-bringer – who, due to his defiance of God is cast out of heaven and known evermore as Satan. From there he makes his way back from the underworld to go and taint the world of Earth, that God has created. In a way echoing the hero’s journey I talked about in both my King Lear analysis (regarding Edgar and Edmund) and also my recent Celestial Classics article about Pluto and Orpheus.

This is one of Doré’s etchings for Paradise Lost, by John Milton. To me the Miltonian presentation of Lucifer/Satan is an intriguing one, as is his God.

God in Milton is a bit stiff, a bit dull, but he is seemingly omniscient and omnipresent. Lucifer meanwhile is defiant, stubborn one might even say proud. Yet it can be difficult to discern quite who is the bad guy.

Adam and Eve, and the story of the ‘Fall of Man’ is theologically ambiguous enough, but Milton really brought it to life in a way that Biblical scholarship had ignored.

There’s a teenage angst and naivety to Lucifer. His intention to start was merely to test himself, themselves, all the angels, against God, to see who would win. Like so many of us he just wanted to prove himself to his father! But, he loses, is cast down to hell and from there vows to do no good.

Yet if God is omnipotent, or at the very least omniscient, why doesn’t he do anything? Is it God’s plan to have a show of force and strike fear into the hearts of his angels? Is it God’s plan to cast humanity, Adam and Eve, to damnation? If not, how does he not see it coming? If he does, why does he not stop it?

Since it is made quite clear in Paradise Lost that God’s creations are a part of him, that they are not derived from nothing, is Lucifer a force against which he cannot act because Lucifer is that part of him which is defiance? Which is evil? What better way to portray yourself as the Ultimate Good than by creating the Ultimate Evil to act against, but ensuring that Ultimate Evil is never as strong as you – controlling it, channeling it so do your dirty deeds whilst you claim rewards.

It’s a fascinating portrayal, and a despairing Lucifer, freshly dropped from heaven to his new Kingdom in Hell, the being who will spout the line “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven,” who is always so self-assured and charismatic, seen here, behind the scenes, freshly defeated and dealing with the anguish of that defeat. It’s a striking image that speaks of all of this complexity and depth.

Adam and Eve Cast from Eden – “The Bible”

Well given that we’ve touched upon it above, why not. Adam and Eve cast from the Garden of Eden. Adam’s face is wretched angry, whilst the Cherub, the angel, stood with a Heavenly sword guarding Paradise on Earth is stoic, unfeeling. Eve simply clutching Adam, head hung in shame and despair.

Like refugees being ushered to a squalid tent by armed guards, or homeless people getting kicked out of a shop doorway by Police – I don’t think there is a stronger image of inequality in the Bible than these two fragile, fleshy creations of God being thrown out into a ‘real world’ – also created by God – in which to suffer.

Behind them, streaks of Holy Light beam out of their once home, illuminating fecund palms and the faint ‘v’ flicks of birds, as they walk toward brambles, vines, darkness and pain.

There really is a visible anger in this image, as if Doré longs for that paradise back, as if all he ever wanted was Eden and, even at the time, by the look on his face, even Adam recognises the savagery of a lack of forgiveness. It is as if he knows, much like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, that the only true path to salvation is not through God, but against him.

Death on a Pale Horse – “The Bible”

From the very beginning of the Bible, and the book of Genesis, to the very end and the book of Revelation – Here we see Death on his pale horse. He has a similar look of stoicism to the angel in the last etching. He has a job to do, no matter how grim, no matter how much suffering it causes. He is to take the lives of all the living and prepare them for judgement.

Behind him follows a stream of all sorts of horrible demons, all hell let loose upon the people of the Earth.

The way the light is cast upon the figure of Death, his horse and the clouds below make him seem like a righteous figure, a noble figure, come to liberate humanity from their sinful, Earthly bodies. Everything else about the image screams otherwise.

Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell – “La Comedia Divina”

A painting this time, from 1861, of Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

It is quite remarkable how much impact Dante’s depictions of Hell actually had on the public consciousness of it. A lot of modern representations of Hell owe themselves to Dante’s descriptions and I don’t think anyone quite grasped the horrors described as well as Doré.

The Ninth, and lowest, Circle of Hell is the frozen lake Cocytus – embedded within are all the traitors, the treacherous, denied even the opportunity to weep by the immediate freezing of their tears. Denied warmth because of their own rejection of human warmth in their lives.

This lake is in four concentric rings, and contains some of the most damned souls in history, Cain who betrayed his brother and slew him, Antenor, the trojan who betrayed his city to the Greeks, and Judas who betrayed Christ to the Romans. At the very centre of this frozen lake is the ultimate traitor, the devil himself, Satan – referred to by Virgil as Dis, the Roman God of the Underworld.

The way Doré captures the look of a contorted body is magnificent, almost akin to Michelangelo, and his faces are always so rich in expression, even when they are simplified in etchings. Here, in painting, you can really see the faces of both men look thoroughly saddened at what they’re seeing. The infliction of such suffering on those people who themselves inflicted such suffering. It is spoken on their faces in remarkable detail.

The Confusion of Tongues – “The Bible”

Another of Doré’s Biblical etchings, the Tower of Babel in the background as, melodramatically in the foreground the designers and builders of the tower to the heavens, the tower to challenge God himself, find themselves unable to communicate. The event known as the ‘Confusion of Tongues’.

Another example of a supposedly omniscient God failing to take control of his creation, instead forcing them to suffer, creating arbitrary division where once all of humankind was one in language and understanding of one another and, why? Because they nearly got close to him.

The despair in the people is apparent. Once friends and neighbours they are now rendered strangers, unknown to one another by a frightened and merciless God-child. Once collective in their ambitions they are now destined to become nations, to scatter across the face of the Earth, estranged from one another to have petty disagreements, wage pointless wars and claim superiority. In that regard, then, very much in the image of their God.

and finally;

Puss in Boots – “Perrault’s Fairytales”

It’s a cat!

Puss in Boots to be exact, from Charles Perrault’s fairytales.

Not really a lot to say about it. It’s Doré so the etching work is fantastic. It’s a cat, so the subject is fantastic. There’s a weird creepy bloke in the river, who is not so fantastic. I just thought I had to end on something happy!

NOTE: All images used are, I believe, Public Domain. Credit: Gustav Doré.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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