Next month the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is opening Gustave Doré (1832-1883): The Power of the Imagination, and it’s likely there will be a renewed focus on the dark romanticism of the 19th-century French artist. However, Gustave Doré’s illustrations have hardly disappeared, remaining popular interpretations of classics ranging from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Little Red Riding Hood. But some of his most haunting work was with Edgar Allan Poe.
Completed in 1883, the 26 plates Doré illustrated for Poe’s poem “The Raven” were actually not published until after his death on January 23 of that year. Doré had been illustrating since he was 15-years-old, and while he also worked with painting and watercolors, he was most prolific with books. At one point, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, he was so productive that he was employing 40 wood engravers at once to translate his images into printable works. From his otherworldly landscapes for the world of King Arthur in the Idylls of the King, to the unsettling vistas of hell for Dante’s Inferno, to vivid visions for the Bible, each illustration had a sharp detail to it that was ecstatic and fantastic while rooted very much in the real.
Yet his work for Poe is a little different. There’s still that density of imagery and the roaming shadows, but it’s more somber than other works. According to Fantasy and Faith: The Art of Gustave Doré by Eric Zafran, Edmund C. Stedman wrote in the introduction to the edition that “Doré proffers a series of variations upon the theme as he conceived it: ‘the enigma of death and the hallucinations of an inconsolable soul … ’ Plainly there was something in common between the working moods of Poe and Doré. Both resorted often to the elf-land of fantasy and romance.”
Below are some of the illustrations from “The Raven” from the 1884 edition published by Harper & Brothers, where skeletons lurk around poor Lenore and the shadow of the raven grows until it consumes the tortured narrator. You can view the whole book at the Library of Congress which has digitized the work, as brought to our attention by Boing Boing.
Gustave Doré (1832-1883): The Power of Imagination will be at the Musée d’Orsay (1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris) from February 18 to May 11.