The Disorderly Notions of Gustave Dore: Don Quixote

Next, in my series investigating the work of Gustave Dore, is the illustrations done for Miguel de Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’, regarded as the most influential piece of Spanish literature in history. The Dore edition, published in 1863, contained a staggering 370 engravings spread over two volumes. The images were inspired by Dore’s recollections of travelling through Spain and communicated the satirical humour he had previously explored in ‘Rabelais’ (1854). Like most of his illustration work, Dore’s ‘Don Quixote became the most recognised and established versions.

First, is perhaps the most iconic image from ‘Don Quixote’. Even before I started my research I recognised and appreciated the combination of fictional characters springing to life while the reader raves in his chair by the window. The title character sits and waves his blade (real or imaginary?), either fighting off the hoard of fantastical beings or marshalling them against an unseen enemy. The majority of them are etched into the shadow, reinforcing their mysterious, otherworldly quality. Don Quixote’s novel of choice is concerned with romance and chivalry and this is reflected by the presence of noble medieval figures riding on horseback. Particularly humorous details include the severed giant’s head and the two miniature knights jousting on the backs of rodents, located in the bottom left hand corner. There is a real sense of churning motion and cramped space in the background which reflects the quote,”…disorderly notions crowded…”

Here we have our delusional hero riding in full armour on horseback down a ravine, while the sky above him teems with more visions of grandeur and heroism. The cloudy figures in mortal combat in the heavens reflect where Don Quixote would like to be but, despite his passion and imagination, he is still grounded in an unremarkable reality. The barren ground upon which he rides serves as a contrast against the unbelievable sights in the enchanted sky. The whole image has a potentially epic atmosphere but this is diffused by the comical sight of the untrained knight riding alone aimlessly.

Next, another noble pose is struck by Don Quixote under the glowing moonlight. His posture is serious and defiant but, once again, is made humorous by his spindly physique and the rural setting. Rather than being set on the battlements of an ancient castle, Don Quixote finds himself living out his fantasy in the presence of a flock of sheep and a horse trough. The dramatic lighting and ominous night clouds try to redeem this, however, and make the Don look convincing.

Finally, making a jump to the very end of Vol. 2, the Don and his ‘squire’ Sancho Panza find themselves on the shore with their dishevelled steeds. Bereft of his armour, Don Quixote looks to the Moon, just as he did in the previous image, but without any hint of self assuredness at all. The whole atmosphere of the engraving is muted and forlorn, the solitary seabirds flying past emphasising the loneliness of their final location. The clouds in the sky here are calm, reflecting that any drama of their previous adventures has now dissipated.


The Disorderly Notions of Gustave Dore: Dante’s Inferno

Continuing with my research on Dore I am now looking at a selection of engravings from ‘Inferno’, part one of Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’. For all three parts of the poem Dore produced an astounding 136 illustrations which became one of the illustrator’s personal favourites. In fact, Dore would apparently use those engravings as source material for his subsequent work. When Dore began work on ‘Inferno’ in 1857 the publishers he contacted were reluctant to get behind it, because the project seemed too ambitious and potentially expensive, so he financed the whole task himself. When it was published in 1861 Dore’s edition won unanimous acclaim some proclaiming that it had replaced Botticelli’s paintings as the definitive work (according to the publisher’s note in ‘The Dore Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy’ 1976).

The first plate I have chosen is ‘Charon and the River Acheron’ which depicts the ferryman of Hell rowing to collect the souls of the dead on the opposite shore. The figure of Charon is posed in the manner of classical Greek sculpture to show off his rugged physique; the angle of his oar indicating a powerful, forceful sweep through the raging water. The darkness surrounding the towering cliffs behind emphasises the central figure reflected in light, while the turbulent waves look as though they are threatening to engulf Charon’s wooden vessel. Dore probably increased the dramatic qualities of this image to reflect that Charon is the first named mythical being that Dante encounters in ‘Inferno’. It is also a turning point in the poem as this is the moment where Dante and Virgil’s descent into Hell truly begins.

This engraving shows Dante and Virgil in the Second Circle of Hell, ‘The Lustful’, looking down into an abyss where from a stream of countless souls whirl endlessly. The silhouettes of the protagonists are insignificant against the razor-sharp rocks but the presence of the damned souls seems miniscule. They are almost like a shoal of fish coiling aimlessly in the air and fading into the background. Dore probably gave this image limitless space to increase the intended feeling of horror and astonishment.

‘The Styx- The Irascible’ finds the two poets in the Fifth Circle, Anger. Dante clutches to Virgil in fear as the heavily muscled forms of the Irascible reach out to tear him to pieces. In contrast, Virgil’s stern expression and outstretched hand show calm in the face of adversity. The teeming bodies blend into the violent currents of the River Styx to show their inability to escape their murky prison. Likewise, the tormented forms on the shore in the background are almost indistinguishable from the blackened peaks behind. Up in the ominous sky the winged forms of devils can be faintly seen patrolling the air. Here, Dore shows an actual conflict between the two living souls and the hoards of the dead.

Next is ‘The Harpies’ Wood’ where Dante and Virgil wander into the Seventh Circle, Violence. Specifically, there are in Violence’s middle circle, the Suicides (violence against self). The fate of the suicides is to be transformed into gnarly trees while the hideous harpies feast on their internal organs. The forms of the suicides are convulsed more in the manner of tree roots and branches rather than conventional human pose. Extra outgrowing twigs give them the appearance of mythical woodland spirits rather than the ordinary people they once were. The harpies themselves are gaunt faced with expressions of animalistic hatred, all their eyes cast on the living interlopers who stand in the shadowy background. The eerily still forest environment of the Suicides makes for a stark contrast with the rest of Dore’s engravings which depict the Circles of Hell as barren, rocky and full of raging motion.

Here, in the Eighth Circle, Fraud, (specifically Bolgia Five: Barrators) the poets are set upon by the Malebranche in ‘Devils and Virgil’. Once again, Virgil is protective of Dante stoically staring down the horde of ‘evil claws’. The devils are based on the conventional Medieval depiction complete with bat wings, horns and pitch forks. By contrast Virgil is shown as a figure of Roman grandeur and nobility, probably to indicate his Italian heritage. There is great use of motion in the swarm of attacking demons compared the immovability of the two men. It is a classic scene of mortal good versus immortal evil.

Finally, I will look at ‘Antaeus- Descent to the Final Circle’. Having passed through the whole Eighth Circle, Dante and Virgil are lowered into the Ninth and final Circle by the giant Antaeus. His immense build and stooped pose once again recall Greek sculpture; his long, flowing beard giving him the look of an ancient Greek deity. The way he holds the two men is gentle, which is incongruous to his apparently savage nature. There is a sense of calm before the storm, a brief respite before the inevitable final horror.

Overall, compared to his previous works of grotesque satire in ‘Rabelais’, ‘Inferno’ concentrated more on the epic, impossible landscape of a terrifying underworld. The bizarre nature of Hell meant that Dore had to conceive a world that was believable but not grounded in reality at all. As journalist Theophile Gautier wrote in ‘Montieur Universal’ (July 30th, 1861), “What strikes us at first glance in Gustave Dore’s illustrations for Dante are the surroundings in which the scenes that he draws take place and which have no relation to the appearance of the mundane world.”

The Disorderly Notions of Gustave Dore: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I got some books out of the library focussing on a particular text that Dore illustrated. This post will look at ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The edition that Dore illustrated came out in 1875 and featured forty-two engravings. It was one of Dore’s later works and he himself remarked that it was, “his best and most original work”. The poem begins with the Mariner narrating his tale to a wedding guest; with his vessel swept towards Antarctica by treacherous winds all hope seems lost for him and his crew.

We can see the silhouette of the moon rising above the doomed ship surrounded on all sides by impossible ice formations. The dark, turbulent background gives an eerie atmosphere but, flying above the ship, the albatross can be seen following like a protective guardian.

The albatross symbolises the Christian soul and is welcomed by the desperate crew. However, the Mariner destroys their good omen with one shot. At first the crew despair over this but, with the lifting of the dark fog, they start to think that he was in the right. This ultimately seals their fate.

The ship is then pursued by nightmares and sea beasts. This is probably my favourite engraving from ‘Rime…’ due to the intricate detail of the waves morphing into mythical figures and the winged demon rising out of the depths.

The Mariner encounters a rotting hulk with two figures onboard; Death and Life-in-Death who are playing dice over the souls of the Mariner and his crew. The outcome of the game has Death taking the souls of the crew instantly while Life-in-Death gives the Mariner an even worse fate- that of living on eternally while everyone else onboard dies.

This is another great, subtle engraving. Rather than show the actual moon, Dore instead has engraved its reflection on the water instead. This means the sea takes up the whole composition making the lonely vessel seem even more insignificant.

Overall, Dore’s sense of epic scale and endless space make the nautical illustrations of ‘Rime…’ very impressive. They really complement the poem well, giving it more visual depth and atmosphere.

The Disorderly Notions of Gustave Dore

I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetic of engravings, with their intricate lines able to create quite a dark atmosphere. Gustave Dore (1832-83) was a prolific illustrator of his day, his engravings embellishing books such as the Bible, ‘Don Quixote’, ‘The Work of Rabelais’, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ among others. I was instantly reminded of the engravings made by John Tenniel for ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ due to their similar depictions of the fantastical and the grotesque (Tenniel also did illustrations for Poe’s ‘The Raven’). Like my previous focus of research Winsor McKay, Dore was adept in many artistic fields like oil painting, watercolour landscapes and sculpture. I have yet to do real in-depth research so expect much more about Dore in upcoming entries…


I particularly like these images from ‘The Raven’; really evocative in mood. They also reminded me of the adaptation of the poem featured in ‘The Simpsons’! Here’s Christopher Lee’s narration of ‘The Raven’- the video accompanying it features Dore’s illustrations again.