Gustave Doré: From Flights of Fancy to Urban Decay

Paul Gustave Doré (1832-1883) was a French artist who won his fame by illustrating popular editions of literary works and the city life of London, England. He did some of the most iconic images associated with Poe’s The Raven, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Doré spent much of his career in England, and his depictions of urban life are complementary, rather than in contrast to his works of fantasy. From the sprawling dwellings of the London working class to a circle of prisoners set out for their daily walk, his dark depictions showed what was so common between the life of the mind and the life of the body in the nineteenth century with a detailed and dramatic style.

I’d recommend a good perusal of his illustrations for anyone interested in the culture, science and literature of the time period. He was condemned by some of his contemporaries for only showing what was poor in London. His illustration of monkeys in a London zoo was used in a course I attended on the history of evolutionary theory and the culture of observation at the time period, and here it served its purpose well.

But aside from the power of his work as social commentary and cultural artifact, there is also something very psychologically stirring here. The way the London slums seem to go on forever, or how death is set against the stars, from sparse and open spaces to cluttered and symbolically rich scenes, the overall effect of his work is very reminiscent of the northern renaissance, only given some life again in the nineteenth century.

In this way I feel that Doré is an inheritor of the spirit of Albrecht Dürer. And certainly, both served as cultural vortexes into which the zeitgeists of their age could see themselves reflected, if such a thing could ever have the foresight to try and do just that.

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