Gustave Doré in Springtime Paris
The ideologically unwelcome popularity of a great artist

The childhood of Pantagruel, from Gargantua and Pantagruel, by Gustave Doré


At any season, Paris has an astonishing visual beauty and harmony that give an extraordinary lift to its visitors’ spirits, but the causes of that beauty and that joy have an ironically deflating effect on modernist artistic and political premises and prejudices. Though Paris is in some ways the cultural capital of the post-Communist intellectual Left — especially now under a Socialist government — the reasons for its delightful urban milieu have most to do with the architectural and urban legacy of kings, aristocrats, and churchmen and the authoritarian beaux-arts traditions that they originated and promoted across several centuries. The impetus, trajectory, and momentum of this legacy were developed by the urbanist Baron Haussmann (1809–1891), prefect of the Seine for 17 years under Emperor Napoleon III. Partly to make it easier to suppress revolutionary insurrections, Haussmann widened streets into broad scenic boulevards radiating from central and coordinated points. But he also planned numerous parks, and these boulevards, gardens, and squares provide broad, invigorating, even ennobling vistas.

The crowning attribute that still separates Paris from the enormousness and inhumanity of so many modern cities is the relatively small size and scale of most of its buildings in the central city. Paris comes closer than any other large modern city to the classical, Christian, and Renaissance ideal pointed out by the architect David T. Mayernik: Only its public and ecclesiastical buildings (vita publica) are allowed to be taller than about seven stories. Private dwellings and commercial buildings (vita privata) may build up to this height; above it, visible from many points in the broad boulevards and numerous parks, only churches, museums, other cultural institutions, and government buildings are allowed. The effect is to provide a setting where visual landmarks are secure, and one is reminded, even if only subconsciously, of the very possibility of a harmony of private and public, horizontal and vertical, human striving and divine order, the city of man and the city of God. By comparison, most other great Western cities, however rich, cannot but seem anarchic and confused, if not inhuman and brutal.

If Paris is beautiful at any season, it is even more so in the spring, with many kinds of flowers and flowering plants blooming in the numerous parks, and with its fountains and sunshine, and its trees shading the noble residential streets. This spring the city’s beauty and interest have been augmented by an outstanding major art exhibition, “Gustave Doré (1832–1883): Master of Imagination,” at the Musée d’Orsay on the Seine (February 18 to May 11; it will move to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, June 13 to September 14, and there is a virtual exposition as well). The show was organized by the art historian Philippe Kaenel and the chief curator of the Musée d’Orsay, Edouard Papet. It is a vast, ambitious, delightful, outstandingly instructive show, and one that aims to restore elite and educated interest in a visual artist whose illustrations have never lost their popularity with masses of people all over the world.

In fact, Doré is one of the most popular and productive artists who ever lived, mainly because of his graphic art, including his popular caricatures for Paris magazines and his illustrations of numerous classic works of literature — satirical, comic, tragic, and religious. His illustrated Bible, which was released in all the capital cities of Europe just before Christmas 1865, is surely one of the best-known, best-selling, most beloved, and most influential books ever published if we take into account the number of its readers and the central place it has had in households all over the Judaeo-Christian–influenced world since its first appearance.

Astonishingly precocious (his first album of drawings was published at age 14) and productive (there are hundreds of illustrations in his Bible), Doré had been fascinated since his youth in Strasbourg by the great masterworks of European literature, which the militant, reductive, secularizing rationalism of the 18th-century French Philosophes had spurned in their quest for a “scientific” politics and culture. His first interest in illustration was Dante’s Divine Comedy, and he did an early series of illustrations for it. But his first large-scale artistic-commercial success was his illustrations for Rabelais’s bawdy and boisterous medieval/Renaissance phantasmagoria, Gargantua and Pantagruel​, in 1854 (at age 22).

What followed were illustrated works that were to etch themselves on the minds, imaginations, and memories of tens of millions of people throughout Europe and Britain, from Russia to California to Australia, and from Canada to Argentina to Africa: the Bible, another set for Dante’s Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Michaud’s History of the Crusades (1877). He was planning a thousand-illustration edition of Shakespeare’s works when he died of angina in January of 1883 (at just over 50 years of age). As the realist critic and novelist Emile Zola, at an increasingly large distance from Doré ideologically and aesthetically, wrote of his Quixote in 1863: “This is known as illustrating a book: personally, I call it remaking the work. Instead of one masterpiece, the human mind now perceives two. It is the same thought rendered in two languages.”

The curators of the current Doré exhibition are keen to make the claim for the interest and excellence of Doré’s work in genres for which he is not famous — large-scale oil paintings, especially on religious subjects but also of landscapes (Spain, Scotland), and sculptures, impressive examples of which are on exhibit. In the outstanding illustrated and scholarly volume published with the show, and available in French and English, Gustave Doré: Master of Imagination (Paris: Flammarion, $60), curator Kaenel shows the immense role Doré played as a “preacher-painter” whose works came to have enormous popular effect as aids to devotion, putting him in the company of great Christian artists such as Michelangelo, Dürer, and Rembrandt. Doré’s works on the contemporary poverty and squalor of rural Spain and of Victorian London (twice the size of Paris) and on the devastating defeat and dismemberment of France by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (his native Alsace was severed from France) show an artist with a keen moral imagination for contemporary realities.


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