In researching and reading about the art and business of woodcut illustration in the 19th Century, it is almost inevitable to end up with Gustave Doré. More than a master draftsman or illustrator, he possessed a practically supernatural ability to simply draw. He was recognized as a prodigy at age five, was carving in stone at twelve, and by fifteen he was supporting his family by drawing caricatures for French magazine Le journal pour rire.
Although Dickens and Doré never met as far as I can determine, their lifespans overlapped, Dickens being born in 1812 and Doré in 1832. And while Dickens labored in the world of British popular fiction and monthly magazines, the French Doré was producing high-quality illustrated art volumes of what we would call “The Great Books”, e.g., Voltaire, Rabelais, Cervantes, the Bible, Paradise Lost, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and many, many others, much of it for a British audience.
In fact it is his sheer output that is breathtaking. In my research, which has been broad but not exhaustive, hard numbers are difficult to come by simply because of the volume. At his peak, which apparently was his entire life, his studio kept 40 engravers busy full time. He only lived to be 51, but, averaged out, his lifetime output comes to sixteen drawings a day, every day, for his entire life. Is it true? The more I look, the easier it is to believe.
He drew comics and caricatures as a boy. He took an anatomy course in a Paris hospital for two years, dissecting with the other students. He was an accomplished musician. He didn’t like sketching in public. He apparently rarely or never worked from a model for a finished piece, having an innate and intuitive grasp of the expressive human form. He never married, and lived with his mom for his entire life.
He was world-famous for his woodcut illustrations, and justly so. But he also painted, and sculpted, work of equally world-class quality and beauty. He created over 100 unbelievably monumental paintings, some measuring 20 by 30 feet. He also sculpted with a facility equal to his drawing and painting skills, but this work never achieved the chart-busting fame of his illustrations. I think this is maybe due to the fact that you could take the illustrations home and own them!
What brought me to Doré in this instance, though I’ve been a fan for years, began with my interest in woodcut illustration of the period. From a technical standpoint, it is a complex tapestry of technology and invention. Among other things, the terminology gets interchanged and a little confusing. As I’ve learned, a wood engraving is made from the end grain of a hardwood like boxwood, allowing for extremely fine lines. A woodcut can be cut into the side grain of a board, which is good enough but allows for less detail. In both of these, the ink is applied to the flat surface that remains after carving.
A main advantage of both of these was that the art could be incorporated right into the page of text, whereas steel engravings had to be printed separately on different paper. I’m sure you’ve see old books like this, with sometimes color images printed on a glossier paper than the text pages, and often printed sideways. Incorporating the artwork into the text was a major advance.
In the case of Doré, as with many other creators of woodcut illustration, the question often arises among students and admirers, “Where are the original drawings for these works? There must be some original drawings somewhere, right?” Well, no. I can tell you, with my own linoleum cutting, the single most arduous part of the process is transferring my tracing-paper drawing onto the lino. I have researched, I have experimented, and there is no easy way. The solution in the 19th century? Draw right on the wood.
As I mentioned, wood engravings are made from the end grain of boxwood, and these trees don’t grow very large, so the largest cross section of wood might be 4×4 inches. For a larger art area, the process was often to glue several pieces together, then to paint the wood white to look more like paper. The artist would draw directly on the wood, then hand it to the engraver, who was of course an artist as well. (in some instances, for a rush job, the sections of wood were screwed together, the picture drawn, and the pieces disassembled and given to several engravers.) You can see that all of Doré’s illustrations have two signatures, his and the engraver’s. So in the end there may be preliminary studies and whatnot, but there are no “original drawings” for any of his great illustrations.
Another factor which may be appreciated by artists especially, is that Doré and every illustrator of the period worked *same size*. As a professional artist, I can tell you that this limitation is unimaginable, certainly not with the amount of detail common at the time. Think of Dickens’ book illustrations, some only 7 or 8 inches tall, and some of the wrapper designs with an elaborate frame of tiny figures dashing and cavorting. These were all drawn, carved and incised at the very size the reader sees them. Doré got to work “large” for big format books, but even then, it was a very real limitation. Photographic reduction of artwork wasn’t available until after about 1900.
Gustave Doré was and truly is a force of nature. Like Dickens, not every work was a home run, but the sheer volume and overwhelming quality of a life’s work is an endless well of awe and amazement.
I found a quaint and curious volume on Internet Archive, and digitized by Google: Paul Gustave Doré, by Frank H. Norton, and published in 1883, the year of Doré’s death. It is short, only about forty pages, and it is sort of one long gushing adoration. In that spirit, I offer this quote:
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Thanks to Wikipedia for the above images.