Gustave Doré in Springtime Paris

by M. D. Aeschliman
The ideologically unwelcome popularity of a great artist

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.

The curators also convincingly document Doré’s influence on subsequent modern genres such as cartoon animation and the cinema, as in the work of Walt Disney and Cecil B. DeMille (who was fascinated by Doré’s Bible illustrations since the age of ten). According to the show catalogue, quoting the American critic Dan Malan, Doré’s influence on film can also been seen “in the way various Star Wars characters ‘uncannily resemble’ some of the figures engraved [by Doré] for Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso,” for which he made 618 images.

Kaenel makes the point that Doré has never ceased to be popular, but that his popularity has had a subterranean quality, and his work has been scorned, mocked, or ignored by elite taste. The reasons are not hard to find, starting with his astonishing virtuosity, facility, and productivity, easy targets for envy and snobbish dismissal by more minimalist and fastidious minds. As important but less easily identifiable were two other factors. His choice of traditional, literary, and religious subjects grew increasingly distasteful to the radical left-wing intelligentsia of the positivist, anti-clerical Third French Republic (1871–1940). Kaenel deftly makes the second, related point, which would call for a reconceptualization of much of the modern history of art: the dominance of “the elitist ideology of the avant-garde.” “How do we measure the impact of Manet’s Olympia or Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which caused a scandal in 1863 in the limited context of the Paris Salon, compared to Doré’s edition of the Bible, published that same year and [subsequently] distributed throughout the world?”

What began in Doré’s time was the progressive institutionalization of the “succès de scandale” — shock value, neophilia, and the vehement assault on the bourgeoisie, that eternal, all-purpose villain, to whom, alas, almost all artists, critics, viewers, buyers, and patrons then belonged and continue to belong. As Daniel Bell, Hilton Kramer, and Jacques Barzun have argued, shock, profanity, obscenity, and willful ugliness and oddity are now our chief modes of artistic legitimation (e.g., Warhol, Diane Arbus, Mapplethorpe, Serrano, ad nauseam).

“Holding the mirror up to nature,” at which Doré excelled, has always had various meanings, not always consistent or reconcilable. Is it the nature of reality, including mental and moral reality, or only the evident visual reality, to which the artist holds up the mirror? Doré was an expert draftsman, but also a fantasist, possessed of the transformative imaginative eye that caught and touched — and touches — millions of viewers. In an increasingly (although inevitably contradictory) positivistic high culture such as that of fin-de-siècle France, Doré’s moral imagination, his visionary narratives, and his orthodox moral sensibility could not fail to offend the emergent political, intellectual, and aesthetic avant-garde. The great early-20th-century illustrations of N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, and Rockwell Kent were to suffer the same fate in the United States. No one of them is given so much as a mention in the otherwise authoritative and useful Atlantic Brief Lives: A Biographical Companion to the Arts, edited by Louis Kronenberger (Boston, 1971), which has only the briefest reference to Doré himself.

The contradictory modernist sensibility from the 1890s on oscillated between coterie aestheticism and political revolutionism, the Jacobin-Marxist-Leninist-Maoist tradition eventually giving us today’s widespread, volatile, inchoate Trotskyite moralism and extreme emphasis on self-expression. The representational, narrative tradition amplified and applied so widely by Doré was easy to spurn in the interests of coterie avant-gardism (or Socialist Realist agitprop). The legacy of this contempt leads us to undervalue great modern American artist-illustrators such as Leonard Baskin and Milton Glaser.

But there is another ideological reason why high-cultural taste-makers abandoned Doré and have treated him with suspicion or contempt ever since: His sensibility was morally orthodox and doctrinally Christian. Writing to an English, Anglican-clergyman friend, he defined himself as an orthodox, baptized Roman Catholic, but emphasized that the apogee of his faith was “contained in the 13th chapter of St. Paul to the Corinthians,” which extols loving-kindness as an even greater virtue than faith or hope. In one of his letters to that friend, Doré identified himself as being “a militant Christian.” Nothing is more distasteful to our current cultural masters.

The Musée d’Orsay’s great Doré show travels to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa for exhibition from June 13 to September 14. In the volume Gustave Doré: Master of Imagination, curator Kaenel deftly, dutifully, but darkly notes that well-conceived plans for a major Doré retrospective in the United States in 2006 “had to be abandoned,” despite “the many and various links between Doré and America” established in the book Fantasy and Faith: The Art of Gustave Doré (Yale, 2007), by the American art historian Eric Zafran, retired curator of painting and sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum of Hartford, Connecticut. In this case, curious citizens from “the land of the free” will have to travel to Canada to see a great show.

— M. D. Aeschliman worked part-time as a lowly drudge in a Madison Avenue art gallery in 1967–1969. He recently edited a new paperback edition of Charles Dickens’s novel about London and Paris, A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Press).