In 1832 Gustave Dore was born to a family of the professional class in the Alsace region bordering what soon became Germany. He began drawing from a very young age, and showed facility and speed. In Paris with his parents, Dore, age 15, impressed a publisher with his ability, and was offered a 3 year contract to illustrate magazines. At the amazingly young age of 17 Dore became the family breadwinner, and a Paris celebrity. The combination of need and fame drove him to produce work at a phenomenal rate; a rate that he kept up until his untimely death at age 51.
Although lacking formal artistic training Dore observed and copied everything he could find in Paris, from the statues in the Louvre to the crowds in the streets. At first he drew the lithographs himself, but with fame came more and more commissions, and he took to designing the illustrations which were then finished in wood cut by others. He illustrated many books of the time, but he is best remembered for his illustrations of the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Dore always wanted to produce paintings that would be recognized by the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Although this goal was never realized, he did create beautiful landscape paintings that proved that he was not limited to black and white engraving.
His view of Le Mont Cervin, above shows a subtle handling of earth tones and vivid sunset pinks. His view of the Scottish Highlands, below, presents a similar handling of a green palette accented by browns and reds.
So why am I bringing up Dore, who seems to have nothing to do with architectural Illustration?
Simply, because his sense of composition is amazing, and the hundreds of engravings that he designed are a treasure trove of inspiration.
To illustrate this compositional genius look at the three images above. They are from left to right, Blondel hears Richard, from the Crusades, The Levite bearing away the body of the Woman, from the Bible, and Jesus in the Garden, also from the Bible. Each is a composition of white, light grey and dark grey, and each is a unique, yet uniquely satisfying thing. Only the center image suggests a realistic picture, and in fact, the center image is the weakest compositionally.
In this shot the three images are filtered in Photoshop to reduce the detail. It is now possible to guess at the general subject, and imagine the settings as variations on a landscape with human figures. The compositions are more nuanced, but are still quite strong and compelling.
The final images, above, show the exquisite detail, and full modeling produced by Dore’s talented engravers. In spite of the detail, the compositional foundations shine through, holding your attention and drawing you into the story.
The Sermon on the Mount from the Bible looks compositionally like a field of flames with a “circle in a circle” form in the center. In the final engraving the mysteriousness is gone, but the hierarchical pattern of dark, medium and light is there instead.
The story of Elaine comes from the Arthurian legend, and Dore’s use of high contrast for the foreground subject is similarly traditional. I love this composition’s ability to entice me without giving a solid idea of what I’m looking at.
Slaughter of the Prophets of Baal, a story from the Bible, starts with a light spot composition. The rather tortured shapes suggest violence and the macabre to me.
This picture of the Massacre at Antioch suggests architecture at once. The cascading brutality comes into focus fairly quickly, turning the architecture into a symbol of evil.
Skewed shapes define this view from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It is a brash concept which perfectly captures the mysterious chant that forms the base of the poem. The truth is, I never liked the poem, but always loved the illustrations.
The story of Absalom, King David’s son, is one of the many tragically bloody stories in the Bible. This composition emphasizes the stormy and dark relationship that developed in the royal household. Absalom can be seen in the dark spot to the right, hanging suspended by his hair tangled in the tree branches.
Some of Dore’s strongest images are found in Dante’s Inferno. In this picture Virgil and Dante stop to talk with a damned soul. The lighting is highly dramatic, and threatening. There is nothing “normal” about this place.
This image from Paradise Lost is an impressively avant-garde mix of chaos and unity. My first reaction was “there is no focus”, but the more I studied it, the more I felt a perfect sense of roiling movement, and endless conflict.
Dore occasionally created a composition which didn’t bow to realism much at all. This view of the Hypocrites from the Inferno, is a simple and powerful image that I could imagine Salvador Dali producing.
The lesson from Dore is simple: start with a powerfulcomposition in grays, and you can’t go too far wrong when you proceed to thefinal work.
And get one of his illustrated books; they are quite cheap in the Dover editions.