Many of the world’s best specimens of literature are built on the impressions of childhood. Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and I’ll name you another—James Whitcomb Riley—have written immortal books with the autobiography of childhood for both warp and woof.
Gustave Dore’s best work is a reproduction of his childhood’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences—all well colored with the stuff that dreams are made of.
The background of every good Doré picture is a deep wood or mountain-pass or dark ravine. The wild, romantic passes of the Vosges, and the sullen crags, topped with dark mazes of wilderness, were ever in his mind, just as hesaw them yesterday when he clutched his father’s hand and held his breath to hear the singing of the wood-nymphs ‘mong the branches. His tracery of bark and branch, and drooping bough held down with weight of dew, are startlingly true. The great roots of giant trees, denuded by storm and flood, lie exposed to view; and deep vistas are given of shadowy glade and swift-running mountain torrent. All is sombre, terrible, and tells of forces that tossed these mountain-tops like bowls, and of a Power immense, immeasurable, incomprehensible, eternal in the heavens.
Doré’s first exhibition in the Salon was made when he was eighteen, and a few years later, when he was presented with the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the decoration made his work exempt from jury examination. And so every year he sent some large painting to the Salon.
His work was the wonder of Paris, and on every hand his illustrations were in demand, but his canvases were too large in size and too terrible in subject to fit private residences. Patrons were cautious.
To own a “Doré” was proof of a high appreciation of art—or else a lack of it, buyers did not know which. They were afraid of being laughed at. His competitors began to hoot and jeer. Not being able to make pictures that would compete with his, they wrote him down in the magazines. His name became a jest.
Various of his illustrations for the Bible were enlarged into immense canvases, some of which were twenty feet long and twelve feet high. All who looked upon these pictures were amazed by the fecundity in invention and the skill shown in drawing; but the most telling criticism against them was their defect in coloring. Doré could draw but could not color, and the report was abroad that he was color-blind.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.