The names of Gustave Dore and Edouard Manet are often mentioned together in art history books. They both were born in 1832; they both died in 1883 – Dore even died on Manet’s 51st birthday; and they both had to endure their shares of negative criticism through life. However, whereas Manet’s prominent place in the history of art was cemented once he was honored as the founder of impressionism, Dore remained fairly on the sidelines of this history, mostly because his work resisted classifications art historians are so fond of. Today, he is primarily regarded as “the greatest illustrator of all time,” although there is ample evidence that he resorted to using many different art mediums. As a rule, these attempts of his are considered second-class; whether we think this is justified or not, it still might lead us to appreciate his illustrations even more. And when one thinks of Dore, what certainly comes to mind first are his magnificent illustrations of the Bible.
As is the case with many of his kind, Dore’s artistic sensibility was expressed and recognized early in life. It was noted that his talent for drawing was apparent the first time he took a pencil in his hands. When he was barely eight years old, he made rather comical – as befitting a child – sketches inspired by Dante’s Inferno and Telemachus’s adventures. At the age of 12, he had his first, already professional-looking litography, printed, and at the age of 15 he signed his first contract with French paper Le Journal pour rire, where he worked as a caricaturist. In the following years, Dore illustrated the works of many famous writers such as Rabelais, Milton, Dante and Balzac. His extraordinary engravings of scenes from Don Quixote became world-famous, and even today few readers imagine Cervantes’s characters differently from the way Dore portrayed them. While working for an English author and journalist Blanchard Jerrold, he produced 180 engravings depicting life in the 19th century London. His artistic skills earned him respect and commendations, but his choice of scenes – namely the fact that he seemed to have focused mostly on poverty-stricken parts of the city – was generally disliked among the art critics of the time, who accused him of “inventing rather than copying.” However, with all Dore’s previous successes in mind, many experts still believe that his remarkable potential was fully realized only when he set to work on illustrating the 1843 French translation of the Vulgate Bible for a new edition that will become known as La Grande Bible de Tours. A total of 241 plates he produced for this purpose look like completely original depictions of the crucial and dramatic events from the Holy Scriptures that have captured the imagination of millions of believers for centuries. With previously unmatched intensity, Dore showed them the wrath of God in the images of the Flood, the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the Destruction of Sodom; but he also showed them God’s mercy and his promise of salvation in the images of the Baptism of Jesus, the Ascension and the New Jerusalem. There is a specific dimension of timelessness to all of the scenes that is well accentuated by the black and white of the engravings.
La Grande Bible de Tours was published in two volumes in 1866 and was a huge success. Next year, Dore organized a major exhibition of his work in London, which further led to the opening of the Dore Gallery in this city.
One of the first editions of the Bible in English with Dore’s illustrations is The Dore Bible Gallery, published by The Fine Art Publishing Co., New York in 1879. This marvelous book contains 100 selected illustrations and is quite rare.