• France, Private Collection
An Illustrator and Painter
Invariably Gustave Doré’s name is associated with his illustrations of which his first successes were Rabelais (1854) and Balzac’s Droll Stories (1855). His fame was assured by his images for the Bible (1866) and the Fables of de la Fontaine (1867) which would leave their mark on generations of artists.
Ironically Doré strove all his life to be known as a painter as that was how he wished to be famous: “I am my own rival. I should outshine and kill the illustrator so that I will only be talked about as a painter,” wrote the artist with slight bitterness. “I do illustrations to pay for my colors and brushes. My heart has always been in painting. I have the feeling that I was born a painter,” he continued in 1873. In 1851, the painter discreetly entered the Salon with a painting of Wild Pines. In 1857, he vainly attempted to gain attention with eight landscapes. Perhaps his art was too far removed from contemporary taste as it was still tinged with Romanticism and the imagination which Zola reproached, “M. Gustave Doré alone still dares run the risk of ridicule by producing imaginary landscapes.”
Nonetheless glory was not lacking for this precocious genius endowed with a prolific imagination and sure hand who attempted every technique and every subject. Given a cold shoulder by the French, Doré found the recognition he craved first in England and then later in the United States. In 1869, he opened the Doré Gallery in London whose success never dwindled. There, he exhibited large scale oil paintings and developed two of his dearest themes: landscape and the Bible.
A Love for Landscape
Gustave Doré’s love for landscape and especially mountain landscapes is said to have gone back to his childhood in Alsace. He had a preference for the Alps: the first eight views commissioned in 1853 were rendered without going there in person. This hardened mountain man who was in excellent physical condition would subsequently spend long sojourns there where he would savor “this happy combination of peace and calm with which this majesty of Nature always inspires me.” The discovery of Scotland in 1873 marked a turning point in his career. Doré was invited there on a salmon fishing expedition by Colonel Teesdale, squire to the Prince of Wales. Rapidly exchanging his fishing pole for brushes, he was transfixed by the beauty of the place. “From now on, when I paint landscapes, I think five out of six will be reminiscences of the Highlands, Aberdeenshire, Braemer, Balmoral, or Ballater,” he wrote as he assembled innumerable visual notes and sketches on site.
“Painter, flee watercolors,” wrote his friend the critic Theophile Gautier. And if the technique hardly interested Gustave Doré during the first part of his career, he seems to have discovered it in Scotland. He employed the medium pure with a lively brushstroke reminiscent of great English masters such as Bonington, Turner, and Constable.
Our work is associated with Scotland in that, for example, it can be compared to the watercolor of a Mountainous Landscape with Stags, 1873, conserved in the Petit Palais. The artist executed numerous views of Scotland when he returned to France, such as the Scottish Landscape in the Museum of Fine Arts in Caen which is dated 1881. In view of its large format, our watercolor was thus realized in the studio as was the habit of this man endowed with incredible visual memory. The view is related to a watercolor sold on May 12th, 1937, which leads to the belief that Doré could have made several variations from the same initial sketch.
This work may have figured among the Scottish Landscapes exhibited in the 1878 Salon or else among the many which Doré presented to the Salon of French Watercolorists between 1879 and 1882. Like Guillaume Dubufe, founder of the event, as well as Leloir, Lami, Fortuny, and Detaille beside whom he exhibited, Doré found an adequate setting there for gaining recognition for works realized in a technique which was not considered very highly in France.
Here, Gustave Doré displays his full talent by letting the watercolors loose and then defining shadows and relief. His restrained palette in which tinted grey and ochre dominate as they blend with burnt Sienna in the foreground and brown washes on the horizon. The painter lets the water flow freely in a cloudy sky where a storm is forming, accentuates the crest of a hill with sap green, and plays with the bare paper to create lights or suggest a body of water.
The view here is quite understated with a succession of wild valleys and ridges. Over the years, human presence disappeared from Gustave Doré’s landscapes. Far from a Horace Vernet or Caspar David Friedrich, the artist fled anecdote and placed us in the sublime grandiose presence of Nature where mankind only exists in humility. Such is the spirit of Gustave Doré who dedicated this watercolor to the painter from Abbeville, Paul-Erst Richner (1830-1888).
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
P. KAENEL, Gustave Doré, l’imaginaire au pouvoir, exh. cat., Orsay Museum, Paris, 2014.
Gustave Doré : un peintre né, exh. cat., Bourg-en-Bresse, Monastère royal de Brou, Paris, Somogy, 2012.
A. RENONCIAT, La vie et l’œuvre de Gustave Doré, Paris, 1983.
H. GURATZCH, Gustave Doré, 1832-1883, Dortmund, 1982.