French Realist painter & designer. Born 10 June 1819 - died 31 December 1877. COURBET, GUSTAVE (1819-1877), French painter, was born at Ornans (Doubs) on the 10th of June 1819. He went to Paris in 1839, and worked at the studio of Steuben and Hesse; but his independent spirit did not allow him to remain there long, as he preferred.
1832 - 1883
French illustrator and etcher, born in Strasbourg, dies in Paris. Famous for his printed illustrations of over 100 books, among which the Bible, fairy tales (by Perrault) the works of Dante (Divina Comedia), Lord Byron and Cervantes (Don Quixote).
Art connoisseurs consider Doré a romantic exponent of the 19th century whose work is devoid of artistic value but whose importance lies in his contribution to the development of book illustration.
For his bible illustrations Doré makes optimum use of contrast and chiaroscuro, often reaching quite mystical effects. His illustrated bible in folio format is a sensation from its moment of publication in 1865.
Around 1870 Doré stays in London for a considerable time where a publisher invites him to sketch a portrait of the city in 180 prints (London, a pilgrimage).
Doré does not manufacture all his engravings himself. In his studio, his sketches are transferred onto plates. At one time, he has a staff of 40 working to meet the demand.
No man is a prophet in his own country. Despite his success as an illustrator, Gustave Doré must have often reflected on this age-old maxim. The artist thought of himself above all as a painter but he was never acknowledged as such in France and he is known to have suffered from it : "I have been told for a long time that painting would make me despair of life.". As late as 1954, Hans Haug, curator at the Musée de Strasbourg during a retrospective featuring the artist, wrote that "Doré remained a failed painter" !
It was only in the 1980’s that French museums began to take a real interest in his painted work, notably thanks to the acquisition of several large canvases.
The retrospective organized at the museum in Brou is mainly devoted to this aspect of Doré. Given the obvious restrictions of space and budget, the most monumental paintings will not be on view (some measure up to seven meters). However, it pays due tribute to the artist’s qualities in this domain, also revealing that he produced fine small formats.
A self-taught artist, Doré is not easily classified, a bad sign for posterity. However, with a bit of objectivity, we might see him as a late Romantic like some of his fellow painters, such as François Chifflart and Charles Meyron. He was a profuse artist, in love with Dante, Victor Hugo and Byron but no doubt was born thirty years too late.
His work, therefore, cannot be summed up only in his illustrations. Doré was indeed also a painter, very prolific at that, the author of some impressive pieces, recognized at least in England (where a gallery was inaugurated in his name) and in the United States where he was sought after by many collectors.
The exhibition in Bourg-en-Bresse opens with a decorative art object, a sculpted mirror, reminding us that Doré wished to be a complete artist. This bronze, exhibited at the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1868, is almost Neo-Rococo and in fact very different from the rest of his work.
After a few drawings and caricatures, the retrospective really begins with a section presenting landscapes, either paintings or watercolors. Influenced both by the Barbizon school and by Courbet (see notably his Landscape of Britanny or Scotland - ill. 1), Doré also liked to paint vast mountain scenes in a style reminiscent of the Hudson River school. As noted in one of the catalogue entries, this similarity (in fact no doubt accidental) may explain his popularity in America.
We next discover genre scenes, notably those inspired by Spain, which he often visited. These figures of paupers or street musicians serve to illustrate a realism we might qualify as picturesque and which is often close to that of contemporaneous painters such as Henri Regnault. This is however not the best aspect of his work, some of the canvases being affectedly sentimental. But there is a small pochade, Spanish Siesta on loan from the Michel Descours gallery, projecting a spontaneity and freedom which almost makes it look like a watercolor instead of an oil.
Doré excelled as a painter of historic compositions and he probably would have liked to be identified as such. The Enigma from the Musée d’Orsay (ill. 2), an allegorical representation of the War of 1870 is an impressive painting, produced in the monochromatic shades often used by the artist, reflecting a certain permeability between his illustrations and the grand genre. We regret that two other catalogued works (The Prussian Black Eagle from the Dahesh Museum and The Defense of Paris from the Vassar College Art Gallery) are missing from the exhibition here. Both, also painted in monochromatic tones, with great winged figures, show that Doré knew how to renew his sources of inspiration although the subjects might be the same. Alsace Beaten, residing at the Conseil général du Haut-Rhin, seems less attractive in comparison.
Indeed, Gustave Doré also produced a great number of religious paintings. But unlike many of his contemporaries, they were not intended for a church. Due to the indifference in France, he preferred England where his immense canvases hung at the Doré Gallery before being purchased (or not) by individual art lovers or museums. Most of the religious works presented in Bourg (true, these are small or medium-sized formats) remained in his studio until he died.