Chapter One

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Gustave Doré is most well known for his wood engraved illustrations. Yet very few of these were engraved by Doré himself. In the 19th century, before the invention of photographic reproduction, books and newspapers were printed using metal type. In order to include images along with type, printers had to have drawings or paintings reproduced on “type high” wood blocks so that they could be included with type on their printing presses. Translating a painting into a printable block was simply a part of the commercial reproduction process. Engravers were considered tradesmen, not artists. Ironically, though Doré is most remembered for his iconic wood engraved illustrations, Doré himself often complained that the engraving process did not do justice to his images. He would sometimes photograph his drawings, executed directly on the wood block, in order to preserve the original, before the engraver translated it into a print ready version. When you look at an engraved illustration by Doré you may notice that there are often two signatures, Gustave’s, as well as the artisan who did the engraving itself. Doré’s work was prepared for reproduction by many such craftsmen such as Louis-Henri Brevière, Émile Deschamps, Louis Dumont, Jean Gauchard, Pierre Gusman, Charles Maurand, and C. LaPlante. In the Musée d’Orsay Doré Exhibition (2014) catalogue editor Philippe Kaenel writes, “Doré maintained that his illustrations could not be adequately judged from the wood engravings based on them and insisted on exhibiting photographs of the drawings as they appeared on the blocks, prior to engraving. He did the same for the Bible Illustrations, and when his publisher reproached him for exhibiting the drawings before the book was released the illustrator retorted that his drawings, alone, could bear witness to his work, which in a sense only existed ‘unengraved’ and could only be seen thus in its true intensity.” 2

Did Doré’s Reputation as a Commercial Artist Undermine His Recognition as a Fine Artist?

At age fifteen Doré entered the world of commercial art, drawing cartoons and illustrations for Le journal pour rire. His vivid imagination and profound skill as a draftsman led to a prolific career as an illustrator. But the artistic tensions between commercial art and fine art were as real in the 19th century as they are today. Though he longed for broader appreciation as a fine artist for his lush romantic landscapes, figure painting, and sculptures, his fame as an illustrator seemed to always undermine his reputation as a fine artist.

The contrast between his profound fame as an illustrator, and the popularity of his books, his reception at the Salon was cool at best. Many of his submissions were outright rejects, and those few that were displayed met with relative disinterest. Some openly criticized his painting and sculptures, imputing to them a sense of literalism which was clearly out of fashion in the age of impressionism.

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